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.

 

 

©2018

[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.

 

©2018

[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.

 

©2018

[1] Acts 16.

[2] John 14:6.

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

Joyful Living: Divine Purposes


Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Philippians 1:1-21

January 7, 2018

 

 

For the next month, I’m going to focus on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Unlike many of his other letters, where there were serious issues within the church that Paul addresses, this is a friendly letter. Yes, there are some issues in Philippi, but Paul’s primary concern is to strengthen their friendship and to remind them that he’s doing well in spite of being locked up in jail.  At the end of the letter, he thanks the Philippians for a gift they’d sent him through Epaphrodi, a member of their congregation. We can envision Paul, accompanied by his co-worker Timothy, penning a quick letter to give to Epaphrodi before he trekked back to Philippi. Without a postal service, he would have provided a means to promptly return thanks for the gift they’d sent.

        A few things about this letter. We’re not sure where or when it was written. We know from the letter, Paul was being held in a Roman city in which the Imperial Guard had an outpost.[1] It has often been assumed this was Rome, but could have been in other cities like Caesarea or Ephesus. As for the date, it could have been written most anytime within the 50s and early 60s of the Common Era.[2]

In addition to this letter being about friendship, it’s also about joy. Think about this: despite his situation, Paul is joyful. Are we joyful when facing troubles? Should we be? Listen as I read from the first chapter, Philippians 1:1-21

 

         Most of us, I’m sure, want to avoid prison and if we were locked up, we’d not very joyful. But prisons have been places where powerful statements have been made.  Think of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Alabama, and Detrick Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.  In the civil rights struggle, some leaders even saw jail as a welcomed escape from the busyness of the struggle. Behind bars, they had a chance to rest, catch their breath and collect their thoughts. From there, by letters, they could encourage their followers. Perhaps this was also true for Paul.

         This book within the New Testament has become known as “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians.” But take a look at the opening verse.  It’s not just Paul, but Paul and Timothy.  Paul, with his usual humility, puts himself and Timothy at the same level. They’re both servants and slaves of Jesus Christ. While this is a letter of friendship, it’s a friendship that’s sealed in Jesus Christ. However, the personal nature of the letter and the continual use of the first person pronoun makes it clear Paul is the primary author of the letter.[3]

Philippians follows a traditional ancient form for letters.  The opening lines tells us who’s being addressed within the letter, from whom the letter has come, and a greeting. In many of Paul’s other letters, he cites his credentials here. But with this letter, that’s not necessary. We wouldn’t write a letter to a spouse saying “I’m your husband or wife,” or to a child saying, “I’m your father,” or to a friend citing that I’m your friend, unless we were being very sarcastic or trying to make a cruel point. This letter is addressed to people Paul and Timothy know well. Although known to the Philippians, Paul doesn’t want the letter to focus only on himself so he greets his readers in the name of Jesus Christ. At its primary level, this is a letter about Jesus.

      After the opening salutation, Paul follows with a section of the letter that is a tradition for him. In every Pauline letter, with the exception of Galatians, Paul has an opening section where he offers Thanksgiving for those he’s addressing.[4] Paul is fond of the people in Philippi, noting that every time he thinks about them, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving.  In this section of the letter, we learn more of Paul’s gratitude and affection for the Philippians. Again, as in his salutation, the focus is ultimately not on the author or recipient of the letter, but on the work of God in Jesus Christ in which they’re involved. Yes, Paul is thankful they have stuck with him, even while he’s imprisoned. After all, he spent his first night in jail in Philippi![5] So Paul being locked up isn’t anything new for them. Paul finishes this section of Thanksgiving, as he often does, with a prayer for those to whom the letter is addressed.

The body of the letter begins with verse 12. Paul now addresses his situation. Instead of complaining about prison food or how the iron shackles are rubbing blisters on his ankles, Paul continues giving thanks. In fact, Paul now understands that his incarceration is having the opposite effect from what his enemies wanted. If they thought that locking Paul up was going to end his ministry, they were wrong. Instead, Paul now has an opportunity to preach and teach the Roman soldiers guarding him.  And those believers who are near Paul witness the strength of his faith and therefore their faith is strengthened. Paul’s attitude, while in chains, is giving voice to others who are continuing the work of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

          We learn that there are two kind of preachers who are filling the gap following Paul’s arrest. There are some who desire the spotlight and may even be secretly glad that the Apostle is locked up.  To them, it’s a competition. They’re not really doing ministry for the right reasons. They’re more like the Pharisee Jesus pointed to, who prayed loud and publicly.[6] But there are others, coming behind Paul, who are motivated for the right reasons, out of love. Paul decides he’s not going to worry about the first group, and just be glad that those spotlight-grabbers are talking about Jesus.  Of course, those in the second group, who love Jesus and want others to have what they have, warms Paul’s heart.  But because both are preaching Jesus Christ, God can use them both to further his work.  Sometimes, especially in my profession, people think that everything is on their shoulders and forget that God can take even our failures and use them for his glory and edification.

Paul is also at peace because he knows how things are going to turn out.  God’s got this under control. Even while he is imprisoned because of his faith in Jesus Christ, Paul knows that the spread of the gospel isn’t up to him. It’s in God’s hands. God is going to make sure Jesus’s message is heard.  Paul is so confident of his message that he is not worried if he lives or dies.  If he lives, great, he can keep doing the work to which he’s been called. If he dies, great, he can be with Christ.

        As followers of Jesus, we have a divine purpose.  We are to be about seeking out and doing God’s will in the world. When we are jealous of others, it’s often because we are focused on ourselves and our own ego and not on what God wants us to be doing. God has given us each talents which are to be used in building up the kingdom. If we use them in purposeful way, we should be satisfied with and joyful in our work. We should also trust that God has called others to do the work of the kingdom.  It takes all types.

There’s an attitude that Paul expresses in this letter that I wish we could all embrace. Think about it. We get uptight. We often see ourselves in competition.  We want to be better and to be seen as better, which can be a good motivator as long as we want to do the best for Jesus Christ. When we want to be the best for selfish reasons, so that we look good, so that we look better than them (whoever “they” are), we miss the point. God still might use us to do important work, but in our hearts, are we really concerned for others? We are to do what we can, as did Paul, but we must trust the future to God?

        A second thing we should learn from this passage is that God can even take our misfortunes and use them for a great glory. Bad can come from good. Hopefully none of us will ever experience prison for Jesus, and certainly not martyrdom, but in the course of human history those who have suffered so for their faith have been an inspiration.  John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, was fortified with zeal when his mentor, George Wishart, the man who led him to see the truth of Jesus Christ, was burned at the stake in St. Andrews. When others see that we hold true to our beliefs in Jesus, even when it means we suffer, we become a powerful testimony. As Paul states in this passage, even his guards are curious about this faith. They want to know why Paul is willing to suffer so for his beliefs. They listen to him with willing ears. God has a way of turning earthly misfortune into eternal treasure.

      Think about this in the context in which we live. We don’t have to worry about persecution or imprisonment, at least not yet in America.  But when others who are not believers see that we are true to our faith and watch as we seek to live as Jesus’ disciples, we make a positive witness. When they see us being honest and truthful, willing for forgo short-term gains because it would force us to act in way contrary to our faith, we reflect Jesus’ face to the world. Consider your actions? Do your deeds provide a good witness to Jesus?  Think about your joy. Are you content with what God is doing through you to bring about a positive change in the world? Can you be happy, even when suffering, ‘cause you trust that God’s got this?

We must live noble lives, be thankful for what Jesus Christ has done for us, and trust that God has called us to a divine purpose.  If we do, believe, and trust, we can experience joy despite our situation. Amen.

©2018

[1] Philippians 1:13.

[2] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), xxxvi-xliv.

[3] Hawthorne, 3-4.

[4] Fred Craddock, Philippians: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 3.

[5] Acts 16:16ff.

[6] Luke 18:10-12.

I am basing this series on an article in Reformed Worship.

 

 

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

JEFF GARRISON

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve Homily 2017

Luke 2:1-15

 

         In this past Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, there was an article I hope you saw, titled “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”.  When I saw “Napalm Girl,” I knew who this was although I didn’t know her name. Those of us old enough to remember anything from the early 70s remember that tragic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running and screaming, her clothes having been burn off by napalm. That girl, Ms. Kim, is now in her mid-50s. In the article, she tells about her bitterness. She still receives treatment for the burns. But she also tells about how, a decade after the event, when she would have been nineteen, she attended a small church in Vietnam on Christmas Eve. And she heard the pastor deliver a Christmas message that would be very familiar to us all. Christmas is not about the gifts that are carefully wrapped at placed under a tree. Christmas is about the gift of Jesus Christ, wrapped in human flesh… A change was coming over her life as she experienced peace for the first time.[1]

The story we are about to hear for the umpteenth time has that kind of power, the power to change lives. Listen as I read Luke 2:1-15.

###

 

It all seems so long ago…. The humble birth in a stable and the horrible death upon a cross… Even the glorious resurrection, as the stone of the grave was pushed aside, seems distant. Yet, something brings us back year after year. Tonight, all across our land and throughout the world, people are gathering to recall that wonderful night of so many years ago.

The year after I graduated from college, I was the night shift production supervisor in a bakery. There was something strange about going to work late in the evening, driving by houses as lights are being turned off. I would think about those people settling in for the night and would feel strange. I was the odd one, laboring throughout the night. From that experience, I know how the shepherds must have felt, as they sat on a hillside overlooking the city and watched the lights in the houses below slowly extinguish.

The night was lonely. Furthermore, being a shepherd wasn’t exactly a romantic job in first century Palestine. People looked down on them. If there was ever a group of people needing a Savior, it was the shepherds early in the morning, when the air was the coldest and they felt as isolated as ever.

Over and over again we hear the words of the angels to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see—I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Perhaps the message was given to the shepherds because they were the only ones awake that night around Bethlehem. But more likely, since our God is merciful and all-knowing, the shepherds witnessed the angel’s song because they needed to hear it. They needed to experience something wonderful in their drab lives. Even though the shepherds continued to watch over sheep in the days and years afterwards, their lives were changed. After a storm, when the clouds were breaking and the moon shined brightly, they recalled another night when the heavens glowed brightly and would be warmed inside for they knew that God loved them.

But the herald of the angels was not just for the shepherds.  The good was and is for “all the people,” for you and for me, for God has come in the flesh. Sometimes we are tempted to forget this wonderful news and need to be reminded. Such is the purpose of Christmas. It is a time to be remind of not only Christ’s wonderful birth, but also his death which atoned for our sins and his glorious resurrection in which we have our hope.

In a poem titled “The Cross in the Manger, Ann Weems, a Christian poet, writes:

If there is no cross in the manger,

there is no Christmas.

If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,

there is no Bethlehem star.

If there is no commitment in us,

there are no Wise Men Searching…

 

Her poem continues on and ends:

 

For if there is no reconciliation,

we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace.”

If there is no goodwill toward others,

it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.

If there is no forgiveness in us,

there is no cause for celebration.

If we cannot go now even unto Golgotha,

there is no Christmas in us.

If Christmas is not now,

if Christ is not born into the everyday present,

then what is all the noise about?

 

Let me tell you a story and give you something to think about as you go home this evening. Once upon a time a country ruled by a king was invaded by a foreign army. The king was killed, but his loyal servants rescued his children and placed them with peasant families in the countryside where they would be safe. The youngest daughter was just an infant and never knew she was the daughter of a king. She grew up with a family in poverty, digging potatoes for a living.

One day an old woman approached the now young woman as she was digging potatoes. The old woman asked, “Do you know who you are?” The young woman said, “Yes, I’m the farmer’s daughter and a potato digger.”

“No, no,” the old woman said, “you are the daughter of a king.” Then the old woman then disappeared into the forest.

“Am I the daughter of a king?” the woman asked herself.  The next day, she still dug potatoes, but she dug them differently. She held her shoulders up high and there a light in her eye because she knew who she was. She was the daughter of a king.

Friends, because of Jesus Christ, we, like the shepherds, have been adopted as children of the Most High King. Being daughters and sons of the king is a high and holy calling which should be evident in our words and deeds. The way we carry ourselves and the way we celebrate should be a sign of God’s grace. Live as a child of the King. Take in this story and like Ms. Kim, let it change your life. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.

©2017

[1] Kim Phuc Phan Thi, “The Salvation of ‘Napalm Girl’”, The Wall Street Journal, (Friday, December 22, 2017), A15.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Repent

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Mark 1:1-8

December 24, 2017

This is a weird day thanks to the way Christmas falls this year. As with most churches, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve at night. But this morning, we’re not quite there.  Don’t jump the gun on your celebrations just yet. It’s not Christmas, but the fourth Sunday of Advent. We’re still waiting and as we’ve done through this season of Advent, we’re looking at passages from Mark’s gospel to give us a better view of this world in to which Jesus came. This morning we’re looking at John the Baptist. He plays an important role and if I’d followed the traditional readings of Advent, he’d take top billing for two Sundays.

One of the Spiritual practices I enjoyed this year was listening daily to the Advent readings and prayers developed by the Church of Scotland, our mother church. I highly recommend these short videos as they are well done. Before reading the gospel text, let’s watch this video about John.

Video Link:

Read Mark 1:1-8

I’m sure many of you know that Mark skips over the infant narratives of Jesus as found in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. In Mark, as in John, there are no stories of humble mangers, gawking shepherds, or gift-bearing Magi. But all four Gospels have stories of the wild man in the desert. Before we can get to that cuddly red-cheeked baby, we encounter John.
John’s not the kind of dude you’d invite to a Christmas cocktail party. Could you image him in such a setting?  Not exactly dressed to impressed, his camel-haired clothing isn’t a fancy sports coat. And heaven help you if he brought a dish to pass. Expect it to be an appetizer consisting of dead bugs soaked in honey (and I bet there’s not nearly enough honey for my taste). And the small polite talk in the parlor will soon be interrupted as John starts pointing out people’s sins. He’s known to call folks a brood of vipers,[1] which wouldn’t exactly endear him to other guests. When he starts preaching and waving his arms, he’ll knock over drinks and offend guests. I’m pretty sure you won’t make the mistake and invite John back the next year. That’s probably be okay with him. He has problems with polite society.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark’s gospel begins.  From the very first sentence, we are told this is a story of Jesus, but as I said, gospel writer doesn’t take us there right away, we have to first encounter John. But before dealing with him, let’s look at this opening sentence which sets the stage. It’s important for us to understand this sentence in the context it was written. First of all, “the beginning” takes us back to “In the beginning,” at the opening of Genesis. We’re reminded that the beginning starts with God’s action leading to creation, just as the coming of Jesus is a God-act. God is doing something new.

God’s action is reason for the good news, or the gospel as it can also be translated. However, the Greek word here (evangel from which we get the word evangelical) doesn’t come from scripture. Before it was a Biblical word, it was a political word. We associate it with “joyful tidings,” but so did the Romans of the first century who would celebrate when Caesar approached. In year 9, decades before the Gospels were penned, a calendar found in Asia Minor noted Caesar Augustus’ birthday with the inscription, “the beginning of joyful tidings.” In the Roman world, this term marked a new political situation in the world. Drawing upon this, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming is a new situation for the world to celebrate. Just as the church took the Roman cross, a symbol of torture and shame, and reinterpreted it as a symbol of freedom, the good news no longer applies to Rome but to Jesus.

It’s Jesus, not Caesar. Jesus is the good news. Drawing on the prophetic tradition, the gospel writer proclaims that Jesus is the promised one. But before Jesus comes, the world must be prepared and this is where John the Baptizer enters.[2]

 

 

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins, not in a manager, but out in the desert with this wild man.[3] Like a coyote, he’s a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s an Elijah, the prophet who was nurtured by ravens, the prophet who found solace in the desert. [4] He has come to prepare the way. He’s the prophet that calls us to leave all that is comfortable behind and to travel into the wilderness. And we’re not going to a spa. When we arrive at those muddy banks along the Jordan, we’ll have to confront our sin so that we might repent and be baptized. He’s also the prophet who knew his place. He wasn’t the one coming, just the one who opens the door for the Messiah.

John was a prophet who came into a silent world. Israel hadn’t had any prophets in centuries. Were their prayers being heard? Being answered? I am sure many of the Jews were wondering if they’d been abandoned as they felt they had for four hundred years in Egypt. But then John is heard bellowing in the wilderness, telling people to prepare for and to expect the coming of the Lord. His message was heard as people flocked out to the Jordan, where they were called to repent and, as they came up from the waters of baptism, to start a new life.

John was a humble man. He didn’t exploit his popularity. He stayed focused to his mission, noting that the one coming was so great that he wouldn’t be worthy to untie his shoes. John didn’t even think himself worthy of serving as Jesus slave. Yet, we know that like John, Jesus, too, was humble. Although born a king, he didn’t exploit his position but assumed the position of a servant, washing the feet of his disciples.[5] There’s a lot we can learn from these two men and how they handled the power bestowed upon them.

Advent is a season of knowing we’re in trouble and we need a Savior. But as the Savior came that first time, on his own terms, not in a way expected by the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, so too he will come to us on his terms. We must prepare ourselves. We must make room in our hearts in and our lives in order to receive the child born in Bethlehem. But we can’t stop there for we must remember that that child grew up and walked the dusty roads of Galilee, calling people to follow him. And that man taught the disciples and the multitudes to love God and neighbor, to show mercy, and to be at peace. Tonight we celebrate his birth, his coming, but for the rest of our live we’re called to follow him and to live as he taught.

John was sent with a mission. He was to point to Jesus. Jesus calls us for a mission, too. We are to point to him and to continue to do the work he started there is Galilee. This season, as we enjoy the lights and the joy around the tree and at the table, let us not forget that we are celebrating the birth of a King and a Savior. Let us not forget that we live for him. Like John, we’re not worthy of untying his sandals, but Jesus loves us enough that he’s willing to wash out feet, to wash our sins away. Jesus loves us enough he’s willing for us to be his adopted brothers and sisters. And Jesus is the hope we, as Christians, have for the world. Let us prepare a place for him in our hearts so that we can show his love, reflect his face to the world. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] Matthew 3:7 and Luke 3:7.

[2] William L. Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 42-43.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele and Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas for the Gospel of Mark,” Reformed Worship #89 (September 2011), 10-11.

[4] See Mark 9:11-13.  See also Malachi 4:5-6 and 1Kings 17:5-6.

[5] Philippians 2:6-7, John 13:3-11.

Watch (Third Sunday of Advent)

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Mark 13:24-37

December 17, 2017

 

 

Sarah and her thirteen-year-old sister have been fighting a lot this year. This happens when you combine a headstrong two-year-old, who is sure she’s always right, with a young adolescent, who knows she’s right. Sarah’s parents, trying to take advantage of her newfound interest in Santa Claus, reminded the two-year-old that Santa’s watching and doesn’t like it when children fight. It has had little impact.
“I’ll just have to tell Santa about your misbehavior,” her mother said one evening as she picked up the phone and dialed. Sarah’s eyes grew big as her mother asked “Mrs. Claus” (really Sarah’s aunt) “could put Santa on the line.” Sarah’s mouth dropped as her Mom described to Santa (really Sarah’s uncle) how the two-year-old was acting. When Mom said that Santa wanted to talk to her, the toddler reluctantly took the phone.
Santa, in a deepened voice, explained to her how there would be no presents Christmas morning to children who fought with their sisters. He would be watching, and he expected things to be better from now on. Sarah, her eyes even wider, solemnly nodded and then silently hung the phone up. After a long moment, Mom (holding back laughter at being so clever) asked, “What did Santa say to you, dear?”
In almost a whisper, Sarah sadly but matter-of-factly stated, “Santa said he won’t be bringing toys to my sister this year.”[1]

I think we’re a lot like Sarah. We like to read into situations that we are in the right and they (a sister, someone else, or some other group of people) are wrong. But Scripture reminds us that there is a problem in the world (called sin) and we (as sinners) are a part of the problem which is why we need a Savior. We must be careful at making ourselves out as righteous and others as being in the wrong.

Today, we are looking at the ending of the 13th Chapter of Mark’s gospel. This chapter has an apocalyptic flavor. Last week, we looked at the opening where Jesus warned about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. He continued on discussing the tribulations that his followers would face during this time of the temple’s destruction. Then he moves to discussing the Son of Man’s return. This has generally be interpreted as Jesus’ return at the end of history, but if so, he doesn’t give us any clear understanding as to when it will happen, only that we are called to be ready.[2]

When you leave today, know two things. As sinners, we’re all in this together. As Christians, we long for Christ’s return. And we are to be ready for that event at the end of history. Read Mark 13:24-37.

 

          Keep awake…  As a child, that used to be so hard. Sermons were the worse. My eyes would be heavy.  School was also another difficult time to stay awake, especially in a warm classroom.  Keeping awake was hard, except for on Christmas Eve, when you were told to go to sleep. It was harder to fall asleep on Christmas Eve than it was when you had planted a tooth under the pillow! You knew something magical was happening. The anticipation was high; too much was happening while we were asleep. I’d roll and roll and when my parents looked in on us, pretend to be asleep, while the clocked ticked away.

         Keep awake, you don’t know when this is all going to happen and when the Son of Man might appear. It’s been almost 2000 years since Christ left—that must be the reason there is a lot of insomnia going around. But we’re weary of waiting. It’s not something we’re good at doing. We fret when we are in the doctor’s office for too long. We stew when we get behind a slow driver along the Diamond Causeway. We brood if a waitress or waiter in a restaurant is inefficient. Waiting makes us feel out of control, unimportant, unwanted and helpless. Yet, we have to wait all the time. Children wait for Christmas morning. Parents wait on children to go to sleep. And the more we wait, the more our blood pressure rises. When is it going to all happen?

And then, Advent rolls around in the church calendar.  A period of waiting, which is counter-cultural in itself, for we are a society of people who want instant gratification. However, most people probably don’t mind waiting for Christ’s return. After all, we can put off the important things in life for another time. But that’s risky, Jesus says. That’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.

       Mark provides us with a pretty gloom picture in this chapter. Certainly most of the chapter is referring to the destruction of the temple which occurred in 70 AD. It was a period of false Messiahs and great upheaval. But in verse 24, Jesus moves to discussing his return. One way of looking at this passage is how, with the temple gone, the focus is now on the Messiah, the risen Christ. The Jesus who lives in our heart and is present in the church is how God is represented in our world today. So yes, Jesus is here with us now in Spirit, but he’s also coming back in person…

In a commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee, a friend of mine writes:

“If the first advent of Christ has any meaning whatsoever, it is only because he is coming back to judge the living and the dead. If he is not coming back, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas….  If ditties along the lines of ‘Have a holly jolly Christmas’ could cure what ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.”[3]

As I said earlier, there is a problem in the world. As sinners, we’re a part of that problem and Christ is the solution.

       Our passage begins with a description of terrible days.  The sun and moon will darken and stars will be falling out of the sky…  Anyone see any of the Geminids meteors the other night?  I only saw one meteor streak across the sky, while taking the dog out, but it was supposedly a pretty good meteor shower. Of course, we know meteors are not stars, but they look like stars and we can see why such showers were frightening to those in the ancient world. Mark envisions not just a darkening of the sky, but a collapse of things we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to look at this passage in a less literal way.  What’s happening is that the lights need to be lowered as a way that all the light can be focused on the one coming—Jesus Christ. The distractions need to be removed so that everyone pays attention to what’s happening.  The scene is scary and wonderful at the same time. It’s God’s great and final drama in history.

         Think about being in a theater. At the beginning of a play or concert, the house lights are dimmed so the audience can only see the performance. The lights are dimmed so that everyone will be focused on Christ.

This return involves the gathering of the elect, the faithful, those chosen by God through Christ. Those who have been faithful are brought into Christ’s presence.

         Jesus then returns to the question that started this discourse, about when these things (such as the destruction of the temple) will occur. He uses a fig tree as a lesson. Just a day or two beforehand, Jesus had cursed a fig tree that was not providing fruit, and the tree shriveled up and died.[4] The fig tree was often used by the Prophets as a symbol of Israel.[5] Now, instead of a fig tree withering, he speaks of when it blooms, which is later that most trees, in early summer. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of when this is happening, probably refers to Jesus the Messiah rising into prominence as the temple, which will soon be no more, fades from history. In the future, God will not be seen in relationship to the temple (for with the temple gone, where would that leave God?). Instead, God is seen through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The fig tree which appears dead in winter, puts forth new sprouts and is alive. Christ, who was dead, is resurrected.

Jesus doesn’t give an exact time for this to happen, instead he points to what will happen.

          Our passage moves on to the final section where Jesus insists that what’s important isn’t that we know when all this will take place (much of which took place before the end of the first century). Yet, we are still waiting for his return. What’s important is that we are ready. “Keep awake,” this chapter ends, or as The Message translates the ending verse, “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  As one commentator on this passage writes, “vigilance, not calculation, is required.”[6]

The use of the story about the slaves or servants waiting on the master implies that they have assignments and must be willing to fulfill their calling while the Master is away. Interestingly, with this section in Mark’s gospel, relating to the Master’s return, there are no signs given. The slaves don’t know, so they must continue with their tasks… Likewise, each member of the church has work to do (by the way, we’re all called) and by doing that for which we’ve been called, we fulfill our obligation to “watch.”[7]

         Christ has come, Christ will come again. But until he does, we are to be his hands and feet in the world, taking care of one another while telling his story so that others will catch a glimpse of the hope the world has in Jesus Christ and be ready. As The Message translation reminds us, “Stay at our post” so we might be ready when Christ comes. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

 

©2017

[1] http://www.humormatters.com/holidays/Christmas/xmasjokes.htm

[2] Some scholars suggest that this passage is primarily focused on Jesus’ resurrected glory.  See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 97.

[3] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas from the Gospel of Mark” Reformed Worship 89 (September 2008), 9.

[4] Mark 11:12-14, 20-21.  Morna D. Hooker, Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A. C. Black Limited, 1991), 320.

[5] See Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1.  See footnotes for Mark 11:12-14 in The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003).

[6] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482.

[7] Hooker 322. See also Lane, 484.

A little child shall lead them…

This morning I was one of three wise guys to present a short seasonal talk at the Skidaway Island Kiwanis Club.  I was honored to share the podium with Pastor Jason Talness of Messiah Lutheran (he’s from Minnesota and a Viking fan) and Rabbi Robert Haas of Mickve Israel (who is also a stand-up comedian).

Kiwanis Club Talk on Inspiration

Jeff Garrison

December 14, 2017

 

One of the occupational hazards of being a Presbyterian minister is that I cannot stand before a group of people to talk without focusing on a Bible passage. It’s what we do. If I was Baptist, I’d have a supply of water and probably be making an altar call. If I was a Lutheran from Minnesota, I’d probably be touting some made-up virtue of godless-Vikings and suggesting that the significance of the purple color of Advent is deeper than its liturgical meaning. And if I was Jewish, I’d be thanking God for one of those hats, a yamaka, like Rabbi Haas wears. I don’t understand our God. Robert has nearly a full head of hair and has to hide it. Me, well, I’m just trying to figure out how to make such a head covering a part of my religious tradition.

My Bible verse for the morning comes from the Hebrew portion of our Bible…  See, Robert, I’m trying hard to earn one of those caps.  Isaiah 11:6-9:

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
 The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
  They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain…

 

The painting I displayed as a backdrop was based on this verse in Scripture. It was one of over a hundred variations of “The Peaceful Kingdom” painted by the 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist Edward Hicks. With so many paintings of the same subject, you’d think he fell into a rut. But he was a Quaker, and in addition to oatmeal, peace is something they do a better job striving for than most of us. Hicks was captivated by this passage. Highlighted in each piece is a child (or in some cases, children) along with the animals depicted in the poetry of the prophet.

  And a little child shall lead them…

Often, I think, we hear this passage and think we’re to follow that child. But that’s not the point. The child in Hicks’ painting as well as the one referred to in Isaiah is leading wild and dangerous animals. In our world, the parents of such a child would be charged with neglect. Who let’s their children play with wild animals? Our world is too violent, too dangerous, as was Isaiah’s. The prophet’s vision, his longing, is for the peaceful kingdom to come about, and that’s something only God can instill. For Christians, we see this beginning with a child born in a manager. We are to follow that child when he’s no longer in swaddling clothes, but crowned in righteousness, as we work to protect children and strive for a peaceful world as envisioned by the prophet. We have our work cut out for us.

For Christians, Christmas remains a season for children.  My best memories of the season is as a child. I didn’t have to worry about sermons back then. And what few gifts I had to give were homemade and, I can assure you, a parent’s love is greater than a child’s skill. So for a moment, think about the holiday when you were a child.

How about that time you bravely climbed up into Santa’s lap and boldly told him you’d been a good boy or girl all year.  And remember how the old man in red could still be heard laughing as your mother dragged you out of the store?

Or how about your first candlelight service on Christmas Eve, the mystery of the evening and the joy of the music filling the hour. Think about how especially proud you were when you were first able to hold a lighted candle by yourself. I know I thought I’d made the big leagues. And then, because we live in a fallen world, think about how you realized you could tip the candle just right and wax would drop, missing the guard, and plop on your sister’s hand she unsuspectingly rest it on the rail of the pew in front. I don’t know about you. I was married and with kids before my mother trusted me with another candle. My current congregation heard of my sin and took care of this problem by issuing battery powered candles.

Think of how excited you were as a child to wake up on Christmas morning and discover the treasures left under a tree. In my family, there were three of us and we’d have to all be ready at the same moment to enter the living room where the loot had been stashed by St. Nick. We never could understand how he managed this since we didn’t have a chimney.

What we did have was a Super 8 motion picture camera and my dad wanted to capture all the action. We enter the room together, only to be hit by the flood lights with an illumination of a small nuclear explosion. The camera recorded us raising our hands over our bleached out faces in order to shield our eyes. It would be another thirty minutes before our eyes adjusted enough to make out what was under the tree. But it was a magical day and we completely overlooked our parents’ exhaustion. (I never could understand why they didn’t go to bed like the rest of us on Christmas Eve.)

And those carefree Christmas Days were special.  We’d play with friends and cousins, trying out everyone’s new toys. Early in the afternoon, we’d be called to a feast with an insane amount of food, which none of us were interested because we’d already been into the stuffing (that is the candy stuffed in the stockings Santa left).

That child born in Bethlehem serves as an inspiration for those of us who strive to follow him. And years later, when he was grown and wandering around the backroads of Galilee, calling the disciples and others to follow, Jesus reminded them (and us) of the importance of childhood. Jesus encourages us to hold on to the awe and innocence of a child, telling us that in order for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must come as one.

As Kiwanians, thank you for helping children make and experience such memories. During this season, I encourage you to watch the children and capture some of their excitement. Then, hopefully, you’ll be inspired as Kiwanians to continue the kind of building Kiwanis is known to do with children around the world. Until God ushers in that Peaceful Kingdom, we have work to do.  Thank you.