The Lamb of God Identified

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

John 1:29-37

March 18, 2018



We’ve been looking at Old Testament passages which provide a background for our understanding of “The Lamb of God” over the past month. We saw in Genesis how, at the near sacrifice of Isaac, God provided a sacrifice. It was a ram caught in a thicket. We also witnessed how God provided a way out of bondage in Egypt through the Passover, a meal in which a lamb was on the menu. Although I didn’t cover all the texts, I alluded to other passages, especially from Leviticus, where God speaks of the need for a sacrifice to remove the stain of sin.[1] The Bible is a gradual revelation leading up to a complete revelation with God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. Last week, in Isaiah 53, we saw for the first time in Scripture, the link between a vicarious sacrifice and a person who offers himself up. Today, we’ll see that person is identified as Jesus. This is where the rubber meets the road.  John the Baptist prepares to hand over his ministry to the one coming. And just how does John identify Jesus?  We’ll see in a few minutes.

        In the verses before this passage, a group of religious leaders from Jerusalem meet John the Baptist in Bethany for the purpose of checking him out. They wonder if he’s the Messiah. This he denies. “Are you Elijah?” Again, he denies it. “Who are you, then?” they press on. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he replies, drawing on the words of Isaiah. “Well then, why are you baptizing?” At this point, John confesses that there’s one coming to whom he’s not even worthy to tie his shoes.[2] This one is Jesus Christ, whom in our reading this morning is identified as “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Let’s look at the passage.  Read John 1:29-37.


        I think we all need to be more like John.  Now that doesn’t mean we need to dress like a wild man, hanging out in a waist deep muddy river, and eating a disgusting diet of bugs slathered in honey.[3] But there are two things John does that we should also do. First of all, we should admit that on our own, there is a limit to what we can do to help someone. John’s fierce preaching encouraged people to examine themselves and to confess their sins. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said and John would agree. We should examine our lives and, according to John, we won’t like what we see. Because of sin, we fall short of the glory God intention for us.[4] If we want to get better, we have to understand the problem.  John’s kind of like the “dental monitor” in the Lifelock® commercial, he points out the problem, but he can’t fix it. (Not even Lifelock® can do that).[5]

          John is a prophet, not a savior. He could symbolically wash away the problem in baptism, but he wasn’t able to wipe the slate clean. The same is true for us. We can’t wipe away our own sin. And if we can’t do that for ourselves, we certainly can’t wipe away the sin of another. So like John, we have to be humble and admit our limitations. Dealing with sin is God’s work.

But there is something we can do. While we can’t wipe the slate clean, Jesus can. John, in our opening verse, points to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Here is the answer for whom we and others desire. Like John, we can also point others to Jesus.

         In our passage, we see that John has some unique insights into Jesus. Although Jesus comes after John, he was there before. As we learn in the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus is equated with the word of God and was present with God from the very beginning of creation.[6] Throughout this entire chapter, John the author (we’re dealing with two different John’s here) wants us to understand that John the Baptizer is not the main character.  That’s Jesus. John is just the guy who might run across the stage in a high school play, holding a cue card so the audience will know what’s next. The guy or gal, dressed in black and holding the prop isn’t the star, just one to point out what’s getting ready to happen. Likewise, John lets us know what coming.

          John goes on to explain that he knew Jesus was the one when he saw the Spirit of God descend like a dove and land upon him. Although John’s gospel doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism, this statement parallels what all the other gospels say about Jesus at his baptism, that the “Spirit descended like a dove.”[7] John is here to testify that Jesus is God’s son.


        Referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God, John informs us as to the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the one who was afflicted with our sin and willing to offer his life as a way to pay for our sin.[8] It’s important to notice that the word sin is singular, not plural.  Jesus is coming to take away not just the effects of our disobedience (our sins) but to cut away the root of the problem, (sin). It’s not just our bad deeds, but the gulf that our rebellion against God has cause to separate us from the Almighty. Our sin has been purged—the chasm between the creature and creator that has existed since the Garden of Eden, has been removed.[9]  Jesus Christ is the bridge that reconnects us to God the Father.

         Another interesting choice of words here is how John implies that Jesus is and will continue to take away the sin of the world. This ongoing action is not just limited to the cross (which is three years away from the time John proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God). Anytime someone comes into an experience with Jesus and feel their guilt and sin removed, they experience this ongoing work of our Savior and Lord.[10]

Twice in our reading John points out to those around him that Jesus is the Lamb of God. In verse 35, John again makes this claim. While pointing out Jesus as the Lamb of God, we’re told that two of John’s disciples leave to follow Jesus.  Like John, we’re not on the earth to make disciples for ourselves.  We’re here to do God’s work which involves making disciples for Jesus.

John’s message is simple. He points to Jesus, the Lamb of God. The Apostle Paul will later take a similar tack when he says that he preaches that he knows nothing but Christ and him crucified.[11] That’s my message, that’s our message, the church’s message. For answers, we can only point to Christ as God’s hope for the world. He is the one who can lead us from bondage and offer us life, eternal life.

         There are two things we should learn and emulate from John. Like him, we are to be humble. We are not here to be Saviors. We’re to be willing to point others to the Savior of the world, to Jesus Christ, and give him all the credit. But you know, that’s hard to do. We want to be given credit for that which we do. We want to be paid our fair share.[12] But that’s not what being a follower of Jesus is about. We’re to point to the one who is willing to offer his life for ours. He is to be given credit for all our blessings; for he, the one who was there at the very beginning,[13] is the source of our blessings.

So let’s be willing to go out into the world and do good.  When someone praises us, let’s not let it go to our head.  Instead, point to Jesus and give him the credit. And when someone asks why our values are different that the world, why we insist on being honest, being fair, or standing up for those oppressed. Point to Jesus and give him the credit. We do it for him. And when someone questions our commitment to gather week after week for worship. There’s no need for excuses. Instead, we tell them what Jesus means for us. There’s no need to brag. As a theologian once said, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread. Like John, we’re point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Amen.


[1] See especially Leviticus 16.

[2] John 1:19-28.

[3] While the Gospel of John doesn’t provide this insight, two of the synoptic gospels make a big deal out of John’s dress (animal skins with a leather belt) and his food (locust and wild honey). Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6

[4] Romans 3:23.


[6] John 1:3.

[7] Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10 and Luke 3:22.

[8] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), 83-84.

[9] Bruner, 81.

[10] See Bruner, 82.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:2.  See also Bruner, 100-101.

[12] See Matthew 20:1-16.

[13] John 1:2-4.

The Suffering Servant

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 53

March 11, 2018


    In Genesis, we learn that the consequence of sin and disobedience of God is death.[1] In the last two weeks, we’ve look at the scripture passages dealing with the Passover and the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In both situations, we see God providing a way out of the situation. While in bondage in Egypt, God tells the Hebrew people how to avoid the angel of death by putting the blood of a lamb over their doorways.  With Abraham, God ultimately does not demand the sacrifice of Isaac, but provides a ram as a sacrifice.  In passages we’ve not looked at, such as those in Leviticus, we learn God even provided a way in which sinful humanity could atone for their sins through the sacrifice of animals and the use of a “scapegoat.”[2] You know that term comes from scripture, don’t you? Originally, the scapegoat was to take away the sins of the people, not just cover up our own misdeeds as the term is often used today.

In the continuing revelation of God in Scripture, we move from the need of a sacrifice to ultimately understanding that Jesus has, once and for all, made the necessary sacrifice on our behalf.[3]  Today, we’re looking at Isaiah 53, in which find for the first time in Scripture, a person serving as the sacrifice for others.[4]

         Our reading is from what’s known as the Fourth Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah.  The passage actually begins back at Isaiah 52:12.These suffering servant passages have been debated over the centuries. Jewish interpreters see the passage as applying to the suffering of Israel. Christian interpreters understand this passage as applying to Jesus. This interpretation goes back to Philip, in the book of Acts, who encounters the Ethiopian eunuch reading this passage and asking for help in understanding it. Philip leads him to see that this passage is about Jesus, who died for our sin.[5] Today, I’m going to read this passage in its entirety, from Isaiah 52:13 through chapter 53.

What are your thoughts about vicarious suffering? Should someone else suffer for our sins and misdeeds? Should we be willing to be punished for the misdeeds of others? What do you think?

         Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest provides an example of such suffering. Early in 1941, he was arrested by the Nazi’s for publishing unapproved literature and sentenced to hard labor. He was sent to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.  That August, a prisoner escaped. As was the German policy, they took ten men out of the barrack from which the escaped prisoner was housed to be punished. The ten were to be placed in a starvation chamber where they would be left till they died. One of the men who was selected cried out about his family and not seeing his children again.  Kolbe volunteer to take his place.  For two weeks, he suffered with the other nine.  At this point, only four of the men were still alive and the Germans, needing the chamber again, finished off the four with an injection of acid into their veins.  Kolbe was one of those alive and he held out his arm to his executioner to receive the injection.[6]

What causes someone to willingly give up their life for someone else? We know it happens. Many of us, if provided the opportunity, would be willing to risk our lives for other.  In the excitement of a moment, we might run into a burning building or dive into cold swift water to save someone. When situations arise, there are people willing to risk it all for a stranger. Parents are known to go to great lengths to save their children, and in times of famine there are stories of parents forgoing nourishment so their children survive. In most wars, there are examples of those who jump on grenades to save their friends, or who volunteer for suicide missions in order to give their unit a chance to survive. 

In the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” the main character is sent on a mission to find a paratrooper whose three brothers had been killed in the previous days’ battles on D-Day and in the Pacific.  Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is sent to find and keep Ryan safe so that his mother won’t lose all her sons.  Miller, as well as many of his men, die in their efforts, which leads Ryan to ask his wife fifty years later if he had earned their sacrifice. That’s an awful burden to carry, the feeling that we must earn the sacrifice of another.

        Our passage this morning speaks of one who carries our burdens, our sins.  As I noted before reading this passage, up until this point in Scripture, God allows a way out of sin through the offering of sacrifices. But now, through the prophet Isaiah, we learn of another way.  It is easy to see why those after Jesus’ death and resurrection were drawn to this passage. This is a popular passage to read on Good Fridays.

The suffering servant is filled with God’s saving power, but with human characteristics, he’s so meek we might overlook him. He’s innocent, yet willingly and obediently suffers. Jesus is God who has come in the flesh. He comes, not as a king born in a palace but as a child to parents who have no other place to place him but in a manger.[7] Although Jesus trembles before his Father on the night before his death and asks if this cup might be removed, he’s obedient and affirms his Heavenly father’s will.[8] There are so many parallels between this passage and Jesus’ life and death.

         The suffering described by Isaiah also parallel’s Jesus’ suffering. He doesn’t complain to his executioners.  His suffering is great because he is innocent and it’s our sins that he bears. Like Jesus, the sufferer described by Isaiah dies with the wicked and then is buried in a tomb of the rich.[9] He becomes an offering for sin, and will make many righteous (or as we might, many will be washed in his blood). As we’ll see in the next three weeks, as I continue this exploration of the “Lamb of God’ theme, through Jesus Christ, God has provided us a way out of our bondage, God has given us a sacrifice that is above all others.

Now, there are many passages in Scripture where I can say, this means we should do this. But this is not a passage about what we do, it’s a passage about what God does for us.  The one who suffers on our behalf is done, not because of something we’ve do, but through the grace of God. God loves us so much that he has constantly, since our first sin, tried to draw us back to himself. That’s love; that’s grace.

Back to the question I asked earlier… What do you think about someone suffering vicariously for another? Do you think it is right or just? Regardless, if we accept Jesus, we are accepting his offer of suffering for our sin. Can we handle that?  Can we admit that we can’t save ourselves need a Savior?  Can we accept that what’s important isn’t what we do, it’s what God does for us? Can we humble ourselves that much?

         The question is not what we must do to obtain such grace, but how we respond to such grace. God has been so good to us, not only in creation, but also in our redemption.  Can we receive what God has done for us through Christ in humble gratitude and then, with gracious hearts, seek to follow Jesus.  And knowing that our eternal security is in what Christ, we can live fearlessly in this life, willing to offer ourselves for the life of another.[10]

Our eternal security is grounded, not in what we do, but in the grace of our Savior. Those of us who follow Jesus should be fearless in the face of suffering and death. We know we’re in Gods’ hands.  No one can take that away from us.[11] Amen.



[1] Genesis 2:15-17.  See also Genesis 3.  Paul drives this point home in Romans 6:23.

[2] See Leviticus 16.

[3] 1 Peter 1:19, Hebrews 9:11-14, 28.

[4] Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Mentor, 2006), 69.

[5] Acts 8:26-25.


[7] Luke 2:7.

[8] Luke 22:39ff.

[9] Jesus is crucified between two criminals and is given the tomb of a wealthy man.  Luke 23:32, 50-53

[10] John 15:13.

[11] See Luke 12:5.

The Lamb of God Passages: God Provides

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Genesis 22:1-14

March 4, 2018



Last week, I began a series of Lenten Sermons focusing on the theme, “Lamb of God.” This series will continue through Easter, when we meet the resurrected and victorious lamb as described in Revelation.  Having not been in the pulpit the first Sunday of Lent (as I was with Faith in Practice in Guatemala), I skipped over Genesis and began the series looking at the Passover.  But as I was writing the sermon at the end of last week, there was something gnawing at me about having skipped over an important passage in Genesis, known as the sacrifice of Isaac.  As you know, in the end Isaac wasn’t sacrificed, but what happened there sets the stage for all that comes afterwards. God provides.  That’s the message of the Lamb of God visions found throughout Scripture.

In a way, this is a horrific passage. I’m sure we all have a problem picturing ourselves as Abraham in this story. But the point of the passage, I believe, is not just Abraham’s faithfulness, perhaps reluctant but willing to carry out God’s commands. What’s important is that God provides.  Let’s pray before listening to this passage.

Almighty God, we know the world and all that is in it is yours. And we know that you’re a loving God. Which is why we struggle with passages of scripture such as this one. Open our hearts, our minds, and our ears, that you might speak to us this morning.  Amen.



        In Frederick Buechner’s novel, Son of Laughter, which is about Jacob’s life, there is a part of the book where Jacob recalls his father Isaac, whose name means laughter, tell him about this event. In telling of it, he relives it. There is no laughter in the old man voice as he recalls how his father has haul him and a load of wood, along with a knife and a cup of coals from the morning fire, up to the mountain. Just telling the story is a torment to Isaac, who remembers how he allows his father to tie him up and place him on the make-shift altar and how the old man’s hands trembles as he raised the knife.[1]

There is always a danger of trying to force our understandings into that of the Biblical world. Things have changed. Abraham didn’t even have the Torah, the Books of Moses, to guide him. Even those who came after Moses still didn’t have the benefit of Jesus, who helps us see more clearly who God is and what God is up to. And even with the New Testament, our situation in the world is different. No longer is the church a persecuted minority within the indifferent and sometimes hostile world of the Romans. That being said, one of the goals of Bible Study and Biblical scholarship is to take us back into the world in which the text was conceived. To look at what the text meant to those who first heard it, and only when we understand that should we attempt to apply it to our world.

Perhaps no text demands such treatment as the one we’ve just heard. From our point-of-view, this is a horrific text.  Would God really want Abraham, an old man, to sacrifice his only son, the son he loves (notice how the narrator underscores Abraham’s devotion to his son). Would God, who promised Abraham a great nation descending from Isaac, really want to knock off the heir? It goes without saying that the world in which Abraham roamed was different from ours. But let’s consider this story.

This is a story that had been told and retold in oral traditions for centuries before he was written down. The story is highly polished and very simple.[2] We’re not given Abraham’s thoughts while he was trudging up the mountain, or what Isaac thought when his dad tied him down and lifted him upon the wood. “All we want are the facts, Ma’am,” as Sgt. Friday would say.  And that’s all we get here.

      But Abraham’s mind must have been spinning.[3]  Decades earlier, God called him. He gave up his past and an opportunity for a nice comfortable retirement in Ur for the life of wandering.[4] He’d given his past up for God, now God asks for his future.  This child, who unknowingly hauls wood on his back up the mountain, is all Abraham has. In him, the old man has placed his hope that his descendants will be a great nation.  And now God asks even that from him. Think about Jesus’ commands.[5] God demands our ultimate allegiance.  Now this doesn’t mean God is might want us to do something as cruel as the story we have here, and I’ll come back to that.  But ultimately, our allegiance doesn’t belong to ourselves, to our families, to our political party, to our country, or to our favorite baseball team. God comes first!  God comes before all our petty loyalties of this world.

In the world in which Abraham lived, it wasn’t uncommon for people to believe that they should give god their best. We speak that language today, but in the ancient world, where children and the best animals were sacrificed, giving your best meant something more

          As a kid, I remember being told that we were to give our best to God which meant being nice, placing the first-fruit of my puny allowance in the offering plate and wearing my “Sunday best” to church—which included a clip-on tie.  I hated those ties. You had to button the top button of your shirt for it to hold.  I quickly learned how to tie a tie so I wouldn’t have to wear the clip-on and could leave my top button open. But being nice, plopping a quarter in the offering plate, and sporting a clip-on tie doesn’t compare to what these folks were willing to give up to gain the favor of a pagan god.

        This story, going back to when it was first told around a campfire on a desert night, explains several things. We learn the importance of the site of Moriah, which is later identified as the temple mount in Jerusalem.[6] This event makes that holy ground. They also discovered why their God doesn’t make the same demands as the gods of their neighbors were making. The Almighty, the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, doesn’t expect that we offer the life of another to satisfy his demands. Finally, they learn of the ultimate freedom of their God. This is a God we cannot control or contain, yet a God that demands obedience.  And this God is loving and provides us with the means to fulfill his commands.[7]

God tests Abraham, and he’s willing to do what God asked,.  God becomes not only the one who asks for the sacrifice, God provides for the sacrifice in the ram caught in the bushes. A god (with a little g) who can command your first-born may seem to be powerful, but such a god is not nearly as powerful as the God who supplies the sacrifice.

We’re back to this Lamb of God image in scripture, where we see over and over again, God provides. Do we trust God to provide for our needs? Do we accept that God is over our lives and our world? Do we trust God even when all seems to be lost, as Abraham did when he climbed the mountain with Isaac?

Let me make one thing clear. While Abraham is commended for being willing to obey God, the text isn’t just about listening and obeying God. I want to make this point clear.  There are many people who think they hear God tell them to do some weird stuff. Such people often end up on the front page of the newspaper. Or their portraits hang in the Post Office.

You have to consider that this story came from a long-gone era. We know more about God and about God’s intent for us than Abraham did.  Two thousand years of revelation has given us new insights as has an additional two thousand years of interpretation. You can’t use this story as proof that God demands you to sacrifice someone.

Abraham’s world was different world from ours. He didn’t know what we know. He didn’t have the scriptures. He didn’t have the laws that were given through Moses that are pretty explicit, “thou shall not kill.”[8] He didn’t have the Old Testament where child sacrifice was considered an abomination.[9] He didn’t know of Jesus who would call the children to come to him.[10] He didn’t have the insight from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament that reminds us that Christ is the perfect sacrifice and the only one required.[11] If we think God is talking to us, we need to be careful. If what we hear doesn’t stand up to what God says in Scripture in the entirety of scripture, we need to reconsider if it is God’s Spirit. In the first letter of John, we’re warned that not all spirits are from God and we must be careful to discern for something demonic may be speaking to us.[12] If you think God is calling you to do something that goes against what is in the Bible, think again! Or come talk to me!

          So I hope you look at this text a little differently. Instead of it being a horrific text about a sadistic God demanding the sacrifice of an innocent boy, think of it as part of God’s ongoing revelation. Yes, we learn the hard truth that God is free. Following God faithfully can lead to anguish struggles. But we also learn why Israel didn’t participate in the sacrifices of her neighbors and that their God loved them enough to provide them what they needed. And that’s good news!




[1] Frederick Buechner, Son of Laughter, (New York: HarpersCollins, 1993), 9-20.

[2] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: Revised Edition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 238.  See also Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga & History, (1901, New York: Stocken Books, 1964), 106.

[3] There are some scholars who said that Abraham believed that God would either spare or resurrect Isaac.  I think this destroys the tension in the text and also, how could Abraham had conceived of the idea of a resurrection?  See Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006).

[4] See Genesis 12.

[5] As an example: Matthew 8:18-22 and 10:37.

[6] See 2 Samuel 24:18-25, 2 Chronicles 3:1.

[7] See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 185ff.

[8] See Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17.

[9] For example see Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31, 2 Chronicles 28:3.

[10] Matthew 19:13, 15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17.

[11] See Hebrews 10:1-14.

[12] See 1 John 4:1-4.

The Magic Kings

Brennen Arkins, The Magic Kings (2015), 259 pages.

The transition from elementary to middle school is a tough time for all students.  For Alan and his classmates, it is made more uncertain by the 911 terrorist attacks that occurs at the beginning of their last year of elementary school. Alan’s life is filled with challenges.  He’s being raised by a single mother. His father died when he was much younger. He’s now slowly coming to a realization of what it means to have a mother that is an alcoholic.  Arkins tells this story through the eyes of Alan. As a pre-teen kid, there are a lot of things he does not clearly understand. Like Alan, the reader is slowly provided clues.  Alan understands his mother is having problem with her former boyfriend, Art, who seems to be a good male role model for Alan. It appears Art and Alan’s mother both have issues with alcohol and even though they break up, Art helps her become involved with Alcoholics Anonymous.


As an escape from the confusing world of adults, Alan and his best friend Zak play in a fantasy world. Yet, they sense things are coming to an end (this will be their last year to “trick-or-treat” so they decide to make the best of it). But while they sense things are ending, they are excited about the fantasy world in which they create. They find a special spot on the other side of town (and across a dangerous bridge that they must ride across on their bicycles) in which they can live out their fantasies. There, Zak looks for his magic wand. But on their second visit, they are challenged by boys from the local neighborhood who have claim on the property. At this point, Zak decides they need a third king, and Joel joins them on their adventures.


As Zak and Alan play in their fantasy world, Alan’s mother begins to take him to church. Before, they had only occasionally attended church. Now they start going to Art’s church. His mother is concerned about Alan’s interest in fantasy and magic and suggests that it goes against the Bible. Their pastor isn’t as concerned as Alan’s mother, but she takes away his Harry Potter books as punishment for him riding over the bridge to their magic kingdom.


The book ends as Alan, Zak, Joel along with others including several girls, move into Middle School.  Alan notices the changes as he is more interested in the girls and less in the fantasy worlds that he and Zak had created. Alan is also more interested in sports and in reading the Bible, which seems to have become his new “magic book.” And construction has begun on the land upon which they’d envisioned their magic kingdom.


I found myself curious about Alan as he navigates his changing world. His challenges kept me engaged. At first I found myself not liking the pastor (who told Alan the only book he read when he was a kid was the Bible). I didn’t find that believable.  But I later liked him when he refused to tell Alan’s misdeeds to his mother, allowing Alan to take responsibility and to work it out himself.


This book could benefit a young boy troubled about his changing world (we’ve all been there, especially in those pre-teen years). The book could also help a boy with parents (or a friend’s parents) with drinking problems.  The story shows the benefits of a religious community and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous to help address such problems. However, I found myself concerned with seeing the Bible as a substitute for “magic books.” In this way, I agreed more with the pastor, who didn’t appear overly concerned about the magic books. I found myself wondering more why Alan’s mother was so concern. Adding to the confusion was Zak trying to be a good friend to Alan and giving him a copy of C. S. Lewis’ “magic books,” The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe.  Lewis’ use of the fantasy genre as an allegorical way to understand Christianity is well known, and the gift shows that although Zak doesn’t get Alan’s interest in Christianity, he is supportive of his friend’s interests.


As for the Bible being some kind of magic book, I would hope that Alan would come to understand the purpose of Scripture is revelation. By showing us who God is and who we’re to be, the Bible helps bring us into a relationship with God. Maybe Alan’s new found interest in the Bible will help him appreciate it not just as a book with better magic or fantasy, but as a guide to a relationship with (to draw from AA language) a higher power.


I am curious as to how middle school boys might relate to this book.  While those of us who lived through the terrorist attacks of 2001 understand the fear and uncertainty expressed by Alan and Zak, I wonder if this would be the same for those who were born a decade later (Alan and Zak would be in their late-20s today). If Arkins was to do a second publication, I suggest he consider how that event might be perceived differently by younger populations.  The other issues that Alan face (a single parent with alcohol issues, fidelity to old friends while making new ones, and relationships with the opposite sex) are more universal than the 911 experiences.


The Magic Kings is easy to read.  Arkins is an excellent storyteller and his style maintains the interests of the reader.  I look forward to reading more books from him.


Disclaimer:  I am in a writing group with Brennen Arkins and was given a copy of the book for review.

The Passover Lamb: God Picks up the Tab

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Exodus 12:21-32

February 25, 2018

I’m sure many of you have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It’s about a poor Russian Jewish milkman named Tevye, who has an incredible voice. His family consists of a worried wife and five daughters.  If I remember correctly, the movie opens with a comical fiddler, straddling the ridge of a roof, playing in the Sabbath at sunset. Tevye looks up to the roof and asks the audience, “And how do we keep our balance on the roof?  One word – tradition.” From this, he launches into a song about tradition, after which Tevye provides the audience a confidential piece of wisdom. “Because of tradition, every one of us knows who He is (pointing to God), and of what God expects of us.”

Our faith is steeped in tradition. At times, tradition has taken a bum rap, some of it justified for we don’t worship tradition. But there are critical points to our faith that we must understand and accept or we’re not Christian. One of these non-negotiable items that tradition reminds us is that God provides a way out of our troubles and back into his family.

As you know, we’re in the season of Lent. This is a season of reflection on our mortality, our sinfulness, and our need for a savior. Or think of it this way… The season of Lent is a time for us to realize that we all have a bar tab we can’t pay.  And God picks up the tab!

       This Season of Lent, I am focusing on a traditional image found throughout the Scriptures, the sacrificial lamb. We can find the roots for this concept in the Old Testament, back even into the early chapters of Genesis.[1] John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “lamb of God” and in the book of Revelation, Jesus is revealed as the victorious lamb.[2] Living where we do, lambs aren’t often observed outside the meat counters in the grocery store, but they were quite common in Bible times and in many more rural places still today.[3]

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds. Jesus refers to us as sheep when he tells Peter to feed his lambs and he presents himself as the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, building upon the idea in Psalm 23, of God as the Good Shepherd.[4] And during Holy Week, which comes at the end of Lent, we see that Jesus offers his life willingly, as a lamb, for our sins. But what does all this mean for us? We’ll examine this over the next six weeks.

Today, let’s go back into the Old Testament story of the 10th Plague and the Passover, as we begin our journey through the Biblical pastures where lambs graze and contemplate their sacrifice upon the altar. Tradition, as Teyve said, holds us up. The Passover, a central event for our Jewish friends, ties in with Jesus’ suffering and death. These traditions remind us that we have a loving God that will go great distances to redeem us from bondage. Read Exodus 12:21-32.


          The tenth plague does it.  Of the first nine, many of the plagues were like jokes: gnats everywhere (something we experience here on every nice day), frogs jumping around, and flies abounding.[5] These are all a nuisance, but what harm do they really cause? But here, in the 10th Plague, we see God not only as the Gentle Shepherd as described in Psalm 23, but a divine destroyer—a God of judgment and vengeance.[6] In our understanding of God, it’s important to remember that the Almighty is beyond our control. As Hannah, the mother of Samuel, proclaimed, “There is no Holy One like the Lord.” She goes on to point out that God breaks the bows of the mighty and grids the feeble with strength, and that the Lord kills and brings to life.[7] We can’t control God, for he already has things under his control. It’s a frightful thing to consider God’s judgment. Before it, we can only pray for mercy. But if God didn’t have such power, what good would God be to us?

At midnight it struck. The first-born in Egypt die. This includes the oldest child of Pharaoh, the man who rules over the Nile and was viewed as a god by his people. Pharaoh’s predecessor played god when he tried to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. Now the tables turn. Pharaoh awakes to death within his palace and the cries across his kingdom. All Egyptians experience sorry and pain. Not even the prisoner in the dungeon is spared. Those from all walks of life—from all occupations and social economic levels—suffer. To our mind, this doesn’t seem fair! Couldn’t the Hebrew freedom been accomplished with less death? Perhaps just the death of the brutal taskmasters, sparing their offspring? Why does someone locked up in the dungeon, someone who had nothing to do with Hebrew slavery, suffer?

        We’re not given any answers here to the suffering question. Just as the Scriptures doesn’t tell us why Israel had to toil for 430 years as slaves in Egypt, we’re given no answer as to why the plague strikes those not guilty including livestock. We don’t comprehend why the first-born of the least of the Egyptians die, or even why in the third plague, the clueless frogs came up out of the Nile only to croak (in a figurative and literal sense). Instead of addressing the problem of suffering, the events of the plagues, especially the events on the night of the Passover remind us (as well as those in the story), that all life belongs to God. But even more deeply, this story reminds us of the cost of freedom.

For those of us who worship Christ, this should be of no surprise. The cross, like the events of the Passover, involves suffering. Whether we are enslaved by an Egyptian taskmaster or the burdens of our sin, our freedom from bondage is costly and to be cherished.

The Passover event, for the Hebrew people, could be compared to our Independence Day. We celebrate what happened on July 4th, 1776, but if we remember our history, it took another seven years of war for our nation to be free from Britain, and it would be another eight decades before there would be a movement to live into the document’s bold claim that “all men are created equal.” For the Hebrew people, there will be 40 years of forging a nation in the desert with many challenges ahead. But this is where their freedom begins. On the night of Passover, a vengeful God remembered his people and gave them a way to escape the angel of death that had descended upon Egypt.

As followers of Christ, we acknowledge the cost of freedom. Our freedom from sin and death did not come easily, as the Hebrews experienced and as we understand in the death of Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge the cries along the Nile this particular night as well as the cries from 1000s of other battles and gives thanks for the freedom we have enjoyed.  Furthermore, as we see in the Hebrew Scriptures, that while such freedom is costly, God is the one who picks up the tab!  God provides the Hebrew people in Egypt a way out.

       I wonder what went through Israel’s collective mind that evening as they participated in this bizarre ritual—putting the blood of sheep on their doorpost, hurriedly eating roasted lamb as they huddled indoors listening to the cries of the Egyptians piercing the air. While they longed for freedom, I am sure many were emotionally moved by the suffering around them. Before the night was over, Pharaoh calls on Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Pharaoh even acknowledges the supremacy of Israel’s God, asking for a blessing for himself.  And so the Hebrew people are free to go, to escape the bondage of slavery. But they must remember that God is the one who provided them their freedom, and that is why they reenact the Passover, year after year, something they’ve been doing for over 3500 years. That’s a long time to thank God for picking up the tab, but grace should make us eternally grateful.

       As you know, last week I was in Antigua, Guatemala.  One of the traditions they have there is that on each Sunday during Lent, there is a procession from a church outside of the city to the site of the old cathedral by the city’s main square. These processions involve 100s of purple-clad men taking turn shouldering massive floats that weigh up to 2,000 pounds (it takes about 40 men just to hold up one of the floats).  They come into town on streets decorated with painted sawdust and flowers, followed by a band playing mournful tunes.  When it is over, all is cleaned up.  By doing this tradition over and over, just as the Jews observe the Passover and we observed Holy Communion, we are reminded of how much God has done for us. We’re reminded that in Jesus Christ, God has picked up the tab.

         God desires to free his people from their bondage to sin and death and to allow us a new life in Jesus Christ. God redeemed the Hebrew families from their bondage in Egypt. Through the salvific work of Jesus Christ, God frees us from our bondage to sin. Our God is a God of grace. Our God is a God who picks up the tab. Rejoice and be thankful. As a God of grace, we not called to earn our freedom, but to respond with a grace-filled life. We hold to the traditions, not because they have magic powers, but because they point to a greater truth found in the Almighty. They remind us who God is and to whom we belong.  When we understand to whom we belong, we will live gracious and generous lives. Amen.



[1] Genesis 4:4, 22:13-14.

[2] John 1:29, Revelation 5:12.

[3] For a more detailed examination, see Robert L. Reymond, The Lamb of God: The Bible’s Unfolding Revelation of Sacrifice (Fearn, Roos-shire, Scotland, “Mentor Imprint, 2006).

[4] John 21:15-16, 10:1-18.

[5] Exodus 8.

[6] For a discussion of God as “Divine Destroyer” in Exodus, see Donald E. Gowan, Theology in Exodus (Louisville: Westminster, 1994), Chapter 6.

[7] 1 Samuel 2:2, 4 & 6.

Joyful Living in the Lord

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

February 4, 2018

Philippians 4:4-20



As a Boy Scout, I loved a good game of Capture the Flag. We often camped in Holly Shelter Swamp on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. There would be two teams, the battle of the snakes. Cobra Patrol verses the Rattlesnake Patrol was a Cobra. We’d start the game as the light was fading from the sky and it’d continue till well after it was dark. The objective was to capture the other team’s flag and bring it back across the center line without getting caught.  If you were caught (or tagged) on the enemy side, you were sent to a “prison” where you were held until the end of the game or until you were freed by being tagged by one of your teammates.

         We played out this battle in a large parking lot for a wildlife ramp on the river.  As we generally camped there in winter, there’d be few or no vehicles parked there, especially not at night, so the lot made an ideal set-up for the game.  On one side was the river, two sides were swamp, and behind us was the bluff where we camped. During my first campout, as one of the young kids who didn’t know what was going on, I and several others were quickly caught and placed in prison. It wasn’t fun sitting there. There was nothing to do but wait and complain. I know a bit of how Paul felt in prison, although I can’t imagine how it must feel to be there day after day, week after week… In prison, you’re at the mercy of others. You can’t participate in what’s going on. There is a restlessness that grows inside of you.

We’re finishing our look in Philippians today. Here, Paul offers some good advice for how we’re to live as Christians.  A lot of it is about our attitude, how we approach life.  Are we optimistic?  Are we gracious?  Do we trust God?  Our attitude goes a long way toward how we live our lives.


At the beginning of this letter, we learned that Paul’s circumstances are not ideal.  He’s writing from prison.[1] There is a guard checking on him regularly, making sure the cuffs are snug, the chains secured, and the door bolted. Guard duty for a soldier was the pits. Boring. Some of the guards would take out their displeasure of having pull this duty on the prisoners.

If you were to write a letter under these circumstances, what would you say?  How would you end your letter? I’m not so sure I could end my letter as Paul did, rejoicing in the Lord. Instead, I’d be begging for you to call a lawyer, to get me out, to raise my bail, or to slip a hacksaw blade in a cake and bring it to me…

Paul is attempting to calm the Philippians who seem to be stressed out. There is some bickering within the church in Philippi as you’d see if you read the beginning of this chapter. Over all, this is normal stuff.  Someone is not happy about something, someone else is stressing out over something else…  It still happens in churches, today. Paul wants the Philippians and would advise us to take a deep breath and then to joyfully continue the work they and we are supposed to be doing…

I recently read a story in the New York Times about how the most popular class at Yale this past year is about happiness. Almost a quarter of the freshman class signed up for the course. The professor suggested the class’ appeal is because the students are under so much stress.[2]

When my daughter was in Middle School, about the same age as many of these Boy Scouts here, she had a class that focused on stress. Consequentially, this stressed her out. She even had homework, to write a paper about what stressed her out. I suggested she write about homework (it sure was stressor during my childhood). In this class the teacher called for a “stress-free day” in which they did nothing.  Not only did they not do anything, they were not allowed to do any other work such as homework for another class. Leaving the class at the end of the period, Caroline told the teacher that the “stress-free class” was the most stressful she’d ever experienced. That was the point. We don’t avoid stress by doing nothing and I think that’s one of the things we see from Paul in this letter. Keep doing the good work, keep rejoicing, and don’t let the circumstances get you down.  Even though things may be bad in Philippi, at least they’re better off than Paul, whose chains rattle as he writes to the congregations he loves so much.

Paul begins this chapter, before our reading, mentioning several people who had been helpful in his ministry in Philippi. It seems they’re in a bit of a snit.  They’re fighting, their arguing, struggling to get alone and Paul tells the good folks of Philippi to step in and help out. They ought to be “of the same mind in the Lord.”  In other words, their focus needs not be on their internal struggles with one another, but on what God is doing in their community. When we focus on ourselves, we take things personally, but when we focus on the larger picture of what’s God’s doing in the world, there’s a lot all of us can get excited over.  We should want to be a part of it!

Paul provides the Philippians with a number of suggestions as to how they’re to live the Christian life.  First of all, they’re to rejoice in the Lord and as they do this, they’re to let their gentleness be known. You know, it’s hard to be praising God as you abuse others. Instead, if we lift up our hearts to God, we should also be led to deal gently with those around us, for we know from where our blessings come and to whom our future belongs. So take delight in God. Stand in awe of God’s wonderful creation, look to see God’s image in those around you, praise God in song and in prayer, with others and when you are alone.

Next, they’re told not to worry. Good advice, but how?  The Philippians probably asked the same question, and then they thought about Paul and his tribulations. “If Paul ain’t worrying, why are we?”  Instead of worrying, Paul encourages his readers to take their needs to God, the one who holds the world in his hands. Of all people, those of us of faith should not worry, but we all do. As followers of Jesus, we should be bringing a calming approach to our society, but I don’t often see that. We should do better.

Paul goes on to say that the Philippians need to focus on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy. Verse eight is a beautiful verse. Paul knows that if those who are bickering focus on what’s important, things will work out. Problems arise. However, when we get sidetracked, what should be minor irritants grows and if left unchecked can become a full-fledge war. Too much of what we fight and argue over is trivial—whether it is in our relationships and family, in the church or in our community, in our nation or between nations. If we only could focus on that which is good and pure and honorable instead of trying to always be seen as right, we’d be better off.

Finally, Paul lifts himself as an example. “Keep on doing those things you’ve learned from me, that which you’ve seen me doing,” he says. Again, Paul is writing this in chains and, by his demeanor, sets an example for the Philippians and for us. We can learn from Paul, just as we can be a model for others by the way that we handle our sufferings. Out Scouts know the importance of doing a good turn daily, and when they do such, they set the example for all.

Let me take you back to my prison experience while playing “Capture the Flag” along the Northeast Cape Fear River. Our patrol leader, a guy name Gerald, served as an example to me for what unselfish leadership is all about. In one of our early camping trips, he gave up his own dry tent to two of us who were wet when water rushed under our tent during a storm. That made an impression on me.

On this particular night Gerald decided to free us and make a dash for the flag.  I told you the dirt parking lot in which played was surrounded by swamp on two sizes and the river on the third. Gerald slipped the river and quietly made his way unseen down the river till he was behind the enemy’s lines, then he slipped into the swamp until he was right behind where we were in languishing prison. With the enemy guard looking to the front, thinking his back was secured by the swamp, Gerald slipped out of the swamp, tagged us, and told us to run. As the guard and others started chasing us as we headed to safety, Gerald grabbed our enemy’s flag and, headed toward our lines. He was caught right before he was able to make it over. Then it was our turn to free him from prison. I don’t remember who won that game. It seemed to go on for hours, but at some point it was over and there was a campfire and a night sleeping along the banks of the river.

From Paul, remember to rejoice, to be gentle with one another, to be a good example, and to trust in a God whose love for us has been shown in Jesus Christ. If God loves us that much, we’re in good hands. Despite the chains, Paul knows he’s been freed by Jesus Christ, which allows him to rejoice even while locked in a Roman jail.  If we can rejoice in his circumstances, so too can we.  Amen.




[1] Philippians 1:13

[2] David Shiner, Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness, New York Times (January 26, 2018).

Brendan Mungwena’s Testimony

Brendan Mungwena

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 28, 2018


I am aged 22, I have 5 siblings whom I love unconditionally which my mother did a great job on teaching us how to love, as well as tolerate each other. My family is supportive Christian Family and I consider myself one of the luckiest people to have such a great family. I believe in the one and only Messiah our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In Zimbabwe the majority of the people are Christian. On the other hand, there is a significant sum of people who still believe in our old ways of Ancestry Communication and Spirit mediums.

            Zimbabwe is known to have been the breadbasket of Africa as it has rich and fertile grounds which gives a good produce of a wide variety of crops which include Maize (Corn), cotton and tobacco. Not only is the land good for farming it is also known for its rich mineral resources.

Growing up we were unsure of what it meant to be Christian as people claiming to be prophets were using supposedly miraculous acts to lure crowds. This caused us to move from church to church in search of the Lord’s presence. Opening the Bible was one of the best things that ever happened to my family and me. Gifted with the opportunity to see what the Bible had in store for us, it was comforting to go through verses such as John 16 verse 33, which states, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Through Scripture, am comforted by knowing that God is faithful, and is always looking over us. He truly cares and is our protector and comforter in times of need.

          I believe in God because I know not any other God or anyone better than the Father of the holy Jesus Christ, I believe in God because I choose wisdom over worldly positions as the Lord says in the book of Proverbs 8:19,“ My gifts are better than gold, even the purest gold, my wages better than sterling silver.” I believe in God because I grew to trust him wholeheartedly without question or doubting his glory and might. Perseverance was not much of a choice because failure was not an option for me and my family, stated in Galatians 6 vs 9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” It always rang in our ears that everything shall come to pass and I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

          There was a day we barely had anything to eat and I asked my mom what we will do for tomorrow and she responded by saying God will provide. At a young age I did not understand her faith and it did not seem logical that we could rely on forces we could not see to provide food for us. She is a woman of unquestionable faith who led us in believing in God no matter the case. Even when we had no clue about what to expect as a single mother she carried our weight with trust and fierce faith in the Lord. I admire her for her belief and I am happy to say God has never let her down.  She is a woman of faith. We went on with our daily activities and that afternoon we got food.   And we were very happy.

           After having experienced a fruitless night, I woke up one morning hungry. She looked at us and told us, “God renews your energy every morning with or without food.” She built a fighting and mental spirit in our lives that lives within us up until today.  We never give up easily on anything we attempt. God’s grace and mercy have been prevailing in my life in ways I cannot describe. There is no other way than God’s way, which is why I live everyday according to his will.

“Jesus wept, was a short verse that meant a lot to me.  Another one was from Psalms 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I did not memorize the whole Psalm but I best related to those verses. They had me marching from one open door to another. It had me understand that I am the one who fights my battles, with a God who guides and protects us.

However, there are still believers in the old ways of spirit mediums and ancestral practices commonly criticize Christianity.  Such practices continue throughout the country.  It is different with each tribe, but they believe there is communication between the deceased who can connect us to God.  These practices have gone on for many centuries. It again became prominent during the struggle for independence among the guerrilla warriors who fought for The Republic of Zimbabwe. Their memories are honored by home brewed alcohol, which is shared amongst the elderly men and women.

           To me being a Christian was the easiest choice because I understood that God had chosen me before I was born. With this in mind, I felt like it was everyone’s responsibility to help other Christians with their spiritual lives and share ideas on understanding of the Lord our God and his text. My friends and I then started Scripture Union, which is a Bible study group. We kicked off with 5 students and grew to an attendance of 40 people, consisting of students as well as teachers. I am proud of establishing this organization because it still runs. This organization was successful in completing several tasks such as redistributing old clothes to orphanages and teaching kids educational games.

With the Eskews, Brendan’s American Host Family

The day when my little sister learnt there was someone greater than all existence who had created the world, she asked how we could repay someone who owns everything we know and touch. I had to answer a question I did not fully understand the answer. I explained to her that our good deeds and pureness of the heart is what will make him happy. We have nothing to offer Him as he is the Great God who creates everything. We can only praise and worship Him in the best ways we can. She still reminds me of this teaching as one of the moments she had clarity on what was going on in her life and how she perceived the world.

           I have come to accept and greatly appreciate God’s love.  I also consider the gift of life to be one of God’s great gifts. I have lived and learnt that God’s knowledge is beyond anything anyone can comprehend but he loves us all unconditionally and he takes care of his own. If that is not enough for one to love, trust and believe in him I do not know what is. He has equipped us for every battle that we can fight and he even provided everyone with a conscience that helps in decision making showing how good our God is.  Amen.

To learn more about Brendan, check out this article in The Skinnie


Burn’s Night Talk

Address to the Haggis

Jeff Garrison

Burns’ Night Talk

St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Savannah

January 26, 2018


Wow!  In our program I am identified as a Rector. I’m not sure how to take this. Should I be honored? After all, the word comes from an old English meaning “to rule.” Or perhaps, because I’m in a crowd of Scots, I should be afraid. As you know, Scots are independently minded. I can assure you that you will not find a minister within the Church of Scotland, the mother church of all Presbyterians, referred to as Rector. You may find the headmaster of a school referred to in that way, but as for the Kirk, that’s way too English, way too Anglican.

Let me take this moment to share with you a bit of history. In the 17th Century, following the Scottish Reformation, the people of Scotland signed the National Covenant, which adopted a Calvinist theology and a Presbyterian form of government. This placed Scotland not only in opposition to the Roman Church, but also to the Episcopal form of government as advanced by the Anglicans.

There were a number of battles over these issues. The Scots don’t like being told what to do. They didn’t like being told that had to pray in a particular manner so they resisted the Anglican prayer book. The clergy didn’t like being told they had to dress all fancy when leading worship which led to the adoption of the Geneva robe. And the Scots had a problem Bishops and clergy vested with lots of power, so they adopted a system of government that shares between the clergy and lay elders. This didn’t go over well with the crown. They liked the idea of having loyal bishops who could help it control the Kirk. The church fought back and eventually a compromise was achieved. The Crown would be Anglican when they were in England, and when in Scotland, they’d be Presbyterian. In Scotland, the Queen has no Bishops to do her bidding and there are no rectors within the Kirk.

Now on to matters at hand—our remembrance of Mr. Burns. Sadly, I never studied him while in school. In college, the only poets of interest to me were musicians. Steely Dan was a favorite. They had some immortal lines back in the seventies and eighties, one of which comes to mind this evening. It’s from their hit song, “Deacon Blue,” and you may know it. “Drink Scotch Whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” It’s a great line, but please, don’t try to live it out. The same could be said for many of Burn’s ideas and examples.

I was in Scotland this summer. As you’ve heard, I scheduled a couple days around Edinburgh with a friend of mine, Ewan. He’d taken time off to be with me, but as it happens in our calling, people are not always considerate as to when they die. On our second day together, I could go to a funeral for a woman I didn’t know or spend the day tramping around Edinburgh on my own. After that hospital visit, I chose the latter.[1]

I started out my morning being dropped off up by the castle. I’d toured it before, so I was interested in something else. In the shadow of the castle, I’d learned of a Writer’s Museum and, fancying myself as a wannabe writer, decided to visit. Besides, the admission is free which warmed my Scottish blood. But the museum is hard to find. I had to humble myself and ask for directions. Not only did I have to do this once, but several times as it appears not many people know of the museum. Finally, someone pointed me to a small alley and said I’d find it up there. There were no signs, but the alley opened up into a square and there was the museum. It’s housed in a very old but unique home with wonderful wooden spiral stairways. There are large exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and the man of the night, Robbie Burns.  As a kid, I’d read Treasure Island, so I spent most of the time in the Stevenson’s section, while quickly running through the other parts. Had I known that I was going to be expected to talk about Burns, I would have lingered a little longer…

Leaving the museum, I worked my way across the city.  One stop you’ll have to make is the Scott Monument, for the author not the people.  If you’re not claustrophobic or afraid of heights, I recommend you climb it. From the top you are treated to one of the most incredible views of Edinburgh. I think it’s even more striking than the views from Arthur’s Throne. So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, if you are in reasonably good shape, have five pounds to spare and a few more to lose to exertion, and enjoy the snugness that comes from being confined in a straightjacket (as the stairwells are smug), check it out.

Don’t worry, I’m getting closer to Burns…  By mid-afternoon I’d made my way to Canonsgate Church. It’s the burial site for Adam Smith and I wanted to pay my respect and do a Facebook selfie to dispel any rumors that I have socialist leanings. While there, chatting with a guide, I asked if there were others buried in the church yard that I might be interested in. “Oh yes,” she said, “On the other side of the church is the grave of Robert Burn’s lover, Clarinda.”

I’ve told you that I’m not a Burn’s scholar, right?  But I knew enough about the man to know that he had more than a few lovers across Scotland. “I’m sure you’re not the only church in Scotland claiming a grave of a Burn’s lover,” I said. She took offense at my sarcasm and reminded me that Clarinda was special.  What does that make his other lovers?

In Garrison Keillor’s novel, Wobegon Boy, the protagonist writes a poem for his wife as a wedding gift. Reading it she embraces him and it suddenly dawns on him why men have been writing poems all these centuries: “to impress a woman with the hopes she will sleep with you.”

Our friend Robbie wrote many such poems for Clarinda. The two of them lured each other with their poetry and correspondence even though they likely never consummated, in a physical manner, their relationship. But their letters and poems are to be cherish. Clarinda is the reason we have “Ae Fond Kiss” and “Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul.”

Of course, Clarinda wasn’t her real name.  That was Agnes, but everybody called her Nancy. That is everyone but Burns, who gave her this beautiful nickname that is much softer sounding than Agnes and less common than Nancy.  And, with this secret name, it was a safer way for Burns to correspond with a married woman.

We can speculate as to why Clarinda maintained her purity while Burn’s promised to conquer her “by storm and not siege.” Their relationship got off to a slow start because after first meeting, Burns had to cancel their next due to an accident that put him on crutches and in bed.  But there were other reasons. Clarinda was pious and religious and even though her husband had run out on her, she wasn’t going to do the same. She would later travel to Jamaica in an attempt to win him back. And then there were a few other details. At the time they were flirting with each other, Robbie had already planted his seed with Jean Armour. When Clarinda resisted Burn’s advances, the poet set his eyes on her servant, Jenny Clow. Ms. Clow would also give birth to the poet’s child. Only a fool would be lured into his bed with the thought she’d have a long-lasting relationship with the man whose seed was germinating all over Scotland. Clarinda was no fool.

Clarinda and Burns were attracted to the others use of language. Both were gifted, and Clarinda was nearly Burn’s equal with the pen as these few lines illustrate:

Go on, sweet bird, and soothe my care

Thy cheerful notes will hush despair;

Thy tuneful warbling, void of art,

Thrill sweetly through my aching heart.

Now choose thy mate, and fondly love…


Although Clarinda probably never allowed Robert to take her to bed, the words the two of them exchanged were certainly intimate and salacious. As an old woman, she looked back fondly on their relationship and said she hoped to meet him in heaven. Of course, that’s assuming Burns made it… The Rev. John Kemp, Clarinda’s pastor, certainly had his doubt as to Burns eternal destination. Maybe he and Burns are sharing eternity together for it was later discovered that the Good Reverend had three wives at the same time! Had Burns’ lived, he would have enjoyed the satirical wit that situation offered. (I want to know how he managed to pulled off having three wives like that).

Clarinda, Jenny, Jean (not to mention Mary and a few others)… What would be Burns’ fate if he lived in today’s “Me Too” climate?  I mentioned Garrison Keillor and we know what happened to him, along with a long line of other popular folk whose sexual indiscretions have come back to haunt them. I don’t know how this would affect Burns. It may not have had any impact. In his day, more than one minister chided Burns for his behavior. He didn’t seem to let their scolding’s worry him.

Poets are often great lovers. Their command of language is such that they can take words and draw our minds into new places and possibilities.  Think of King David, a poet from the Bible. Many of the Psalms are attributed to him and, we’re told, he was a man after the heart of God.  And like Burns, he wasn’t always honorable. This is speculation, but can you image the love note he sent down to Bathsheba?  Of course, we know the pain that little affair caused. Poor Uriah. But we remember David, with his frailties, because we all have had our own shortcomings. David gives us hope and shows us the wideness of God’s mercy.

I am not sure Burns had the same desires for God as David, but we can still appreciate him. In his day, he brought humor to a serious society and pointed out social inequalities and hypocrisy. And today, he us still reminding us to look for beauty. Furthermore, Burn’s collection of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect gives identity to those of us whose ancestors left those rocky shores, yet whose hearts are still warmed by the beauty of heather blooming in the crags. And, furthermore, his poems are easily plagiarized when we court our sweethearts.

I did visit Clarinda’s grave that afternoon. It was covered with flowers—fresh flowers. She’s buried next to her cousin, Lord Craig, whose grave looks like it was last attended to during the Boer War. It’s been nearly two centuries years since her death and there are people who not only remember her, yet think highly enough of her to regularly place flowers on her grave. That’s quite an honor.  Here’s to you, Clarinda.

Thank you.


Sources Consulted:

_________, Robert Burns in Your Pocket (Glasgow: Waverley Books,      2009).

Brauer, Jerald C., editor, The Westminster Dictionary of Church History    (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971).

Dawson, Jane, John Knox (New Haven: Yale, 2015).

Douglas, Hugh, Robert Burns: The Tinder Heart (Gloucestershire, UK: Alan  Sutton Publishing, 1996).

Herman, Arthur, How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York:   Random House, 2001).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation: A History (New York: VikingPenguin,  2005).

[1] A story used in my introduction (story came from the Chic Murray Facebook site and “adapted” for this occasion:
This past summer, our speaker was visiting the Rev. Ewan Aitken, a friend of his in Scotland.  Ewan asked if it was okay for him to run in and see someone at Edinburgh General Hospital. 
 “No problem,” Jeff said, and asked if it was okay if he went in, too.” 
“Come on.” Ewan said.  While Ewan was making his pastoral visit, Jeff decided to see what he could do to cheer up some of the patients. He stepped into a ward and went up to a bed and said hello.
The man looked up and said, “Far far yer honest sonsie face great chieftens o the puddin race a boon them aw you tak..
Oh for goodness sake, Jeff said and moved on to the next bed
“WEE courin timid beastie wad caused this panic in tha breastie…..” the patient mumbled.
Shaking his head, Jeff moved to the next bed.
“Some hae meat and canna eat and some hae nane and want it…”
At this time, Ewan was ready to leave and came over to Jeff who asked if this was the insane ward. 
“Oh no,” Ewan, said, “this is the SERIOUS BURNS UNIT.”


Joyful Living: Affirming Priorities

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

January 21, 2018

Philippians 3:2-17


What’s our number one priority? What’s the most important thing for us to accomplish? What should we all be striving for? As followers of Jesus Christ, we’re to be thankful, generous, gracious, and focused on him. Our priority, as we’re going to hear from Paul in just a moment, is to be “in Christ.”

This morning I’m continuing to work through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Read Philippians 3:2-17

It’s never too late to do what is right.  That’s good news, although at times it may not seem like it.

        I’m sure some of you have read Anne Tyler. She’s published twenty novels, several which has been considered for a Pulitzer and one which was awarded the prize.[1] I’m curious if any of you have read her novel, Saint Maybe?[2] It wasn’t considered for the Pulitzer, but a good book, nonetheless.

Saint Maybe is the story of Ian Bedloe. At the beginning of the book, he’s a high school student living in the shadows of Danny, his talented older brother. Ian looks up to his Danny and doesn’t know what to make of things when his brother quickly marries a woman with two children. She’s quickly pregnant with a third child, maybe too quickly. In time, Ian begins to have questions about Danny’s wife and one day, when he’s angry and feels he’s been taken advantage of by his sister-in-law, he shares his concerns with his brother. Danny becomes upset, flies out of the house in rage and is killed in an automobile accident. Or was it an accident?

Ian lives with a terrible secret.  He graduates from high school and goes off to college. Along the way, his sister-in-law, who struggles with three kids, dies from an overdose. Again, was it an accident? Or intentional? The guilt builds, as his parents who are now aging and have health issues of their own, must take care of three small children. Ian is unsure as what to do and one night while walking around with his hands in his pocket, stumbles upon a storefront: “The Church of the Second Chance.”

He becomes friends with Reverend Emmett, to whom he confesses what he has done. Emmett assures him that he can be forgiven, but that he needs to take care of his brother’s kids. He drops out of school and for the next two decades raises the kids, putting his own life on hold.

Tyler’s story is about forgiveness and shows a tension that exists between forgiveness and consequences, penance and doing what is right. Certainly, there is much in the story that smacks of works-righteousness and later in the book, his sister-in-law’s oldest child, a bright but troubled teenager, labels Ian “Saint Maybe.” He certainly saw himself, not working out of gratitude but striving to earn forgiveness… Was he paying the price or accepting the consequences of his sin?

Paul, I believe, would disagree with Ian’s feelings that he’s got to carry this burden to the end to be forgiven. Our forgiveness comes through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. But, the grace God has shown us frees us to live in a new way; it frees us to finally do what is right and good and noble, not because we want to earn our salvation but because our relationship with Christ is all that matters.

          Although I felt the “Church of the Second Chance” should have helped reassure Ian that he’s loved unconditionally by God, I credit them with helping him, just a kid in his late-teens, care for the three orphaned children. The church stands by Ian, babysitting and helping him bear the burden. And in the book, after years of struggling to raise these children who are not his, you see the fruit of the love they have for each other and their adopted father. Grace, along with love, does abide.

In our Scripture passage for today we get a sense Paul is in a battle with the Jewish Christians who wanted to burden Gentile converts with the Law handed down from Moses. Why else would he begin this section of his letter, in verse 2, with a warning for his readers to beware of dogs, evil workers and those who mutilate the flesh? This is nothing new for Paul. Unfortunately, if you read Paul, he always seems to be commenting on circumcision.[1] It was the big issue of the day for Christians in the Mediterranean region in the first century.

       Paul has every reason to be proud of who he is and of his background. In our text, we hear Paul cite his resume. It’s impressive, the guy has credentials. But then he turns it around and in verse 7 says he regards it all as loss because of Christ. It wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. Paul affirms that our priority is to be in Christ. That’s all that matters. He’s running a race focused on Christ. His goal at the end is to be reunited to his Savior.

        There are three points that I want to make today concerning this passage. First, consider what Paul uses, from his own life, as an example for others. Secondly, what is it that we value?  What’s important for our lives? And finally, there’s the good news in this passage. It’s never too late to do what is right.


  The Apostle Paul had a miraculous conversion on the Damascus road. Paul literally does a one-eighty; he starts out as a persecutor of the church and becomes the church’s greatest missionary. Such a change has set the pattern for what we, as Christians, see as the ideal conversion.[2] But interestingly, Paul doesn’t hold up his conversion as the ideal or even as the norm. It happened only because of the grace of his (and our) Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of talking about his conversion as a model for others, Paul lifts up his struggle to be faithful as the example.  In numerous places, he uses the metaphor of a runner or an athlete to describe the Christian life.[3]

Too often, I think, we see one’s acceptance of Jesus as the goal. If someone can just accept Christ, all is well. I’m not so sure that Paul would agree with this modern way in which we’ve cheapened the faith.  Paul saw himself in a long distance race, and the goal line wasn’t going to be reached in this life. Paul experienced grace, but that’s not the goal. Grace isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Grace helps us prioritize what’s important and redirects our lives. Like Paul, we must continue to run, to hold tight to the faith as a runner in a relay might hold tight to the baton. The goal is to be with Christ, eternally. Paul tells people not to judge him by his past, for his life-long goal is to be faithful to his Savior. Nothing else matters. He’s looking ahead and encourages us to do the same.

       This leads into my second point, “what is it that we value?”  What’s important to you? How do you want to be remembered?  Paul makes a definite point here. What’s important isn’t the past.  His resume is impeccable, and he throws it out the window.  “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” he writes in the 7th verse. Our accomplishments pale in comparison to what Christ has done for us. Even if we live a good life, we still have no room to brag and it’s all so trite when we think about the love shown to us.

Or maybe there are things in our past that overshadow our accomplishments. Some of us (perhaps many or all of us) are burdened with at least part of our past. We’ve done things and left things undone that we’ve regretted, things may still haunt us. That doesn’t seem to be Paul’s problem. With the exception of his stint as a persecutor of the church, his past is pretty remarkable. I expect for most of us, and I’m including myself, our past is a mixed-bag: some good and some bad and some indifferent. But Paul reminds us we can’t dwell on our past.  We’re to start where we are and make our way forward.

         This leads into my third point. The past is water under the bridge. We’re now on a new journey with Christ and we need to focus on him. The good news, as I said at the beginning, is that it’s never too late to do what is right, to change our direction, to find the peace that comes from knowing and accepting God’s grace and love.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of his past; there was much in his past of which he could be proud. Instead, he knew it didn’t matter. What was important is what Jesus had done for him and how he responds. The same is true for us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a community, as a nation and even as the collective citizens of the globe. If we spend too much time dwelling on the past—on the good we’ve done, the bad we’ve done or that which we left undone—we’ll miss out on what we can be doing now. How do we respond to God’s love in Jesus Christ? How do we live “In Christ?” That is what’s important.

We can’t let the past hold us back. Paul knows he has to move forward. He’s ready to run till Jesus calls him home. What about us?  Do we trust enough to turn all the joys and accomplishments, the broken dreams and missed opportunities, over to Jesus, and to dedicate this day and every day forward to serving him and him alone? It’s never too late to start. Let us pray:


Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we bow before you giving thanks for your grace and asking for you to help us run this race with Christ as our goal. May we live in Christ and in your good time die in Christ that we might be in Christ in your presence eternally. Amen.



[1] See Romans 2:25-29, 3:1, 4:11; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 2:12, 5:6, 5:11, 6:15; Ephesians 2:11; Colossians 2:11, 4:11; Titus 1:10.

[2] See Fred B. Craddock, Philippians: Interpretations: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), 55.

[3] See 1 Corinthians 9:24 & 9:26, and Galatians 2:2 and 5:7.  The writer of Hebrews also uses the runner as a metaphor: Hebrews 12:1.

[1] Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons have all be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Breathing Lessons was awarded the prize.

[2] Published by Knopf in 1991.

I have used “Dwelling with PhilippiansReformed Worship #100 as a starting point for these sermons on Philippi.



Joyful Living: Imitating Christ

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

January 14, 2018

Philippians 1:27-2:10


We’re continuing our journey through Philippians. Paul has a special place in his heart for this church. It’s in Philippi, on the Sabbath, that Paul, Timothy and Silas meets a group of women down by a river who’ve gathered to worship. Paul shares the gospel message and one woman, Lydia, is especially moved. She invites Paul and his friends to stay in her home. Paul accepts her invitation and organizes his first church on European soil.[1]

As I’ve mentioned, Philippi was also where Paul first experienced prison. In the middle of the night, there was an earthquake that broke open the jail. The jailer thought Paul and Silas had escaped and was ready to end his life, but Paul cries out to him and assures him that everyone is all present and counted for even though the bars are opened and the chains broken. This leads to the conversion of the jailer and his family.

Paul is pleased with how his work was blessed in Philippi and, as we saw last week, he keeps them in his prayers. Likewise, the Philippians are also fond of Paul, even sending a gift to relieve his suffering while he’s in prison.      As I attempted to stress last week, joy is a theme that appears throughout this letter. This seems odd with Paul being, once again, in prison. In today’s reading, we learn that there are some difficulties facing the Philippians. Paul wants to encourage them as he draws upon Christ’s example. I am going to begin today’s reading at the end of the first chapter, beginning with verse 27.  Read Philippians 1:27-2:13.


          We know how to do this. We might forget sometimes, but we know that when we want to connect with a child, we get down on their level. Or we raise them up to our level. And the same goes with our pets. We get down on the floor and play, or if the pet is small enough, we pick them up and hold them close or place them on our shoulder. And if we’re trying to teach someone something, we don’t act superior and tell them to come to where we’re at, but we began on their level. It’s empathy. It’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Such behavior is foundational if we want to build a good relationship. We might not always do it, but we know we should.

God shows us how this works. It’s why Christ came to us as he did, in a way that we can understand and in a manner in which we can related.

         Our reading this morning begins with a plea for those reading the letter to live in manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a goal we should all strive to meet.  Paul has just given an update on his condition, and so he turns to the situation in Philippi.  He wants the Philippians to stand together, to be of one mind and spirit so they will not be intimidated by their opponents. He even has the audacity to suggest that it is a privilege to suffer with Christ!

        Our speaker at the January Series on Friday was Caroline Webb. She spoke on how to use behavioral science to improve our daily lives. One of the things she suggests is that by looking for the good in everything, our brains will catch on and focus on good. She seems to be echoing a bit of what Paul is saying here to the Philippians.  “Sure, you’re suffering, but stand firm and focus on the good for you know God is bringing about your salvation.” Focus on the good!

Early in the second chapter, Paul gives some wonderful advice which stands in the tradition of the Golden Rule. If we could only live by this:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.


As Christians, we should ponder Paul’s counsel and consider what it means for us. The kingdom of God has no place for ambition or conceit. We’re called, as disciples, to work for the greater good of God’s kingdom, not to build our own little fiefdom. We should regard others better than ourselves which checks our tendency to be overly zealous and to look down on those who do not agree with us.

         I am often asked about the Christian belief that the only way to God the father is through Jesus Christ. Lots of people have a problem with this exclusive claim, seeing it as not accepting the pluralism that exist within our society. Yes, our belief in Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, is exclusive.[2] The problem, however, arises when Christians begin to think ourselves, or of churches, as superior to others. Such thoughts cannot be attributed to Jesus or to Paul. Paul, who certainly believed in the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ, tells those in the Philippian church that being a disciple means they must be humble, they must be of the mind Jesus.

Think about what this means. Jesus Christ, if we recall, got along better with the sinners of the day than he did with the faithful. He accepted them. Furthermore, he didn’t try to control them. He gave them a choice to follow him or not and didn’t beat up those who didn’t choose him. The only time he got really angry was when he saw people being an obstacle to worship as when he attacked the money changers at the temple.

         Another of our January Series speakers this week was John Inazu. For those of you who were not here, I hope that by mentioning these two speakers, you get a sense of what you’ve been missing…  Inazu is a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a fellow in the Institute for Advance Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He didn’t tell us how about his travel schedule back and forth between Virginia and Missouri, but he did encouraged us to have confidence with our faith. For you see, it’s only when we are confident about what we believe that we can take the risk to befriend those who are different. Otherwise, we’ll see them as a threat and have a tendency to demonize them. But if we are grounded in our faith in Christ, we should be willing to accept others who are different for we know that they, too, are created in God’s image.

It is a heresy, I believe, for the Christian faith to focus on how we might dominate and subdue others. Our focus is to be on Jesus Christ. Christ, as Paul tells us in the beautiful poem that follows this section, emptied himself, humbled himself, and took on the form of the slave so he could reach a broken humanity.

The example I used at the beginning—of us being willing to getting down in the floor with a child—is what God does in Christ. God comes down to our level, which is what the Christmas story is all about.

We should apply Paul’s principles to our lives. Are we standing firm in one spirit, in one mind, in the same love?  Paul certainly knows there is a need for diversity of thought and he’s not after a uniformity of opinion. Instead, he’s hoping, as one commentator on this passage wrote, the Philippians will “strive for an inner sentiment for one another that is full of love.”[3] That’s also my prayer for us. We’re not to flaunt or to brag about ourselves, but are to be called into the heart of Jesus Christ and into his service.

The Reformed understanding of call (and all of us here have been called by Christ) is twofold. We’re called for salvation and for service. We can’t laud over those outside the kingdom, for we’re not called to dominate, but to serve them with love so that, through God Spirit, they might come to know the truth.

Being a Christian isn’t anything special. Being a Christian means we’ve accepted a position of servanthood.  It means that we don’t trust ourselves; we trust Christ and allow him to rule our lives. Are we living our lives, as Paul asks at the beginning of this passage, in a way that’s worthy of the gospel. Or, as we say here at SIPC, are we reflecting Jesus’ face to the world? If not, what might we do differently? How might we gain the confidence needed in our faith to be bold in befriending the world? Amen.



[1] Acts 16.

[2] John 14:6.

[3] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 71.