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FAQ’s of Faith: Who Is Jesus?

(a sermon for February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Matthew 16:13-20)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

It might have seemed a simple question, but when Jesus asked it of his disciples they knew immediately that there was any number of answers they could give.  “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the [other] prophets.”  Basically, Jesus, it depends on who you ask and when you ask them; truth is, everybody out there seems to have a different take on just who you are and what you’re all about!

And so it is even now; I mean, of all the “FAQ’s” (that is, “Frequently Asked Questions”) with which I could have started this sermon series, this question about who Jesus is would seem to generate the most wide array of responses!  For instance, for a whole lot of people their primary (and perhaps solitary) picture of Jesus is that of the baby in the manger; while others will immediately connect the name Jesus with the figure that hangs on a crucifix, even if they’re not at all sure what that even represents.  The fact is, there are countless people who can easily name Jesus as a historical figure or know that he’s some sort of religious icon, and yet not really know much more than that about who he is!

Then again, even those of us who have spent much of our lives knowing Jesus to one degree or another can attest to, shall we say, a changing point of view where he’s concerned.  For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School, I’m guessing that somewhere in the back of your mind there’s an image of Jesus as having long, flowing black hair, milky white skin and a robe of white and scarlet; surrounded by children and cradling a lamb in his arms; maybe that’s still how you like to think of Jesus!  Or if you are of, as they say, “a certain age” or perhaps more accurately, of a certain generation, it could be that your image of Jesus is that of the ultimate counter-culture icon; the one who vehemently turned all the values and assumptions of our middle-class world upside and inside out, the one, writes Philip Yancy, whose every teaching was “jarringly antimatrialistic, antihypcritcal, pro-peace and pro-love.”  Indeed, in all times and especially in these times Jesus can appropriately be seen as the vanguard of social justice on every level of human society.

Dig a little deeper, however; get into the biblical and theological perspective as to the identity of this Jesus of Nazareth and you discover a whole realm of possibilities as to how we might know him.  He’s the Christ; he’s Lord of Heaven and Earth; he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords; he’s the Messiah, and our Savior; he’s the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Redeemer; he’s the Bread of Life, he’s Living Water and he’s the Light of the World; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man; and he’s our Emmanuel, God With Us.  Jesus is the one to whom John refers to in his gospel as the “Word made flesh [that has] lived among us,” (John 1:14) and who Paul described to the Hebrews as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)  He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and he’s the Incarnate Word of God!

And yet for all of that and so much more that I could recite to you here, we really can’t tell you all that much about what he looked like; about his life between the time he was born and the beginning of his public ministry nearly 30 years later, or even if he had brothers and sisters (biblical scholars have been debating that question for centuries!). We really don’t even have a sense of everything Jesus might have said or taught in those three years of itinerant ministry; all we can claim as truth are the accounts of the four men who wrote the gospels, with the rest coming from biblical history, church tradition and the kind of discernment and analysis that is renewed with each successive generation.

So… when Jesus asks that question – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” – I guess the answer does come down to who you ask and when you ask them!  (Actually, maybe the best response came from the renowned theologian Karl Barth; who when asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence, he answered, “Yes, I can… [it’s] ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”)

But then, in our text this morning Jesus asks another question; and this one cannot be answered in such a second-hand manner: “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”  This is where things got personal very quickly!  I have to imagine that at this moment the disciples were all very quiet and looking to the ground, each one of them careful to avoid eye contact with Jesus, like students in a classroom hoping and praying that the teacher won’t call on them!  Because it’s one thing, you see, to report the “conventional wisdom” of the people and even share a bit of the gossip that’s out there; but it’s quite another to commit yourself!  Answering this kind of a question requires something of you; as if to say it means that you know it and you live it!   Those disciples knew full well in that moment that however they answered Jesus, life as knew it would never be the same again; they knew, as do you and I, that we are what we claim!

It turns out, you see, that as much as we might try to seek out answers to this question of who Jesus is, ultimately the real question that needs to be asked is who Jesus is to us; and the thing is, friends, how we answer that question will inevitably affect our responses to every other question of faith and life itself.  And it’s not to say that all the things we’ve seen, heard and learned about Jesus don’t come into play here; in many, many ways we are all the by-products of  two millennia of Christian teaching and tradition, not to mention all those years we spent hearing Bible stories and doing arts and crafts in Sunday School!  But in the end, what all that means and how all of it comes into focus in our lives is revealed by our own confession of faith; it is what and who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who we are and who we’re willing to be!

Granted, to make that kind of confession does involve some risk.  It’s no accident that of all the disciples with Jesus that day it’s only Peter – good ol’ impulsive, I-can-walk-on-water-just-watch-me Peter (!) – who even dares to respond to Jesus’ question:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  It was a bold answer, albeit one as he ended up revealing again and again, that Peter didn’t really completely understand; but he said it, and with every fiber of his being, he meant it.  Somehow, the whole mystery of what God had done in and through Jesus had gotten through to him, and though he couldn’t begin to explain or interpret it in any kind of way that made sense or that resolved the mystery of it, Peter knew that from now one every single moment of his life to come would be a reflection of his being in the presence of the promised Messiah of Israel, the one who was and is “Son of the Living God.”  And indeed it would; as Jesus himself goes on to say, it’s upon Peter himself – the one whose very name, Cephas, means “rock” – that the church would be built, “a church so expansive that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (The Message)  Peter’s confession of faith would be the catalyst for more than he could ever possibly imagine; a life, says Jesus, where “a yes on earth is a yes in heaven… [where] a no on earth is no in heaven.” [again, The Message].

See what I mean about what it is that we believe and say about Jesus making all the difference?  We are what we claim!

So I lift up this “frequently asked question” to each of you this morning:  Who is Jesus?   Or more to the very important point, Who is Jesus… to you?

Let me tell you a bit of what I think; keeping in mind that what I think about Jesus – as a pastor, as a person, as a Christian – ever continues to grow and evolve over time and experience and changes in my life.  Some years ago – sometime in the mid-90’s, I think – there was this song on the radio sung by Joan Osborne entitled “One of Us.”  You might remember the lyrics:  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.”  The song was a big hit, and I think it even won a Grammy award; but I’ll be honest with you in that when it came out, I didn’t much care for the song!  And mostly, it was because of that one line in the chorus that suggested that God might be “a slob like one of us.”  It seemed to be to be yet another pop culture putdown of my Christian faith; and besides, I had to put up with all these confirmation kids who delighted in pointing out to the pastor that God might just be nothing more than “a stranger on the bus!”

But over time (and also, I must admit, hearing the song played over and over again on the radio!), I got to thinking about how actually one of the central truths of our Christian faith is how in grace and perfect love God did come to us… as one of us; first as a helpless, crying baby in the arms of a young mother, then as a young man with calloused carpenter’s hands and likely middle-eastern features; then as a teacher and healer and friend imbued with the fullness of God, one who spoke with boldness, compassion and unending hope even and especially to all those who were forever without hope and dwelling on the fringes of life; and finally, as one who went willingly to his own death on the cross for the sake of our having a relationship with God now and eternally!  Beloved, of all the ideas and images that we’re given of the divine presence, the most remarkable and extraordinary of all is this incredible truth that God – God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth (!) – was “present, active, speaking, giving and healing through this [singular] human life!” And that’s everything; as Norman Pott has put it, “our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God… [but that] God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming… if we affirm God in Jesus, we are opening to the possibility of God in ourselves.”

And I have to tell you… that though my pastoral sensibilities still tend to make me shy away from the image of God being “a slob” in any way, shape or form (!); the truth is that when I think of who Jesus is, it’s not the “stained glass window Jesus” that I envision, nor is it so much someone walking around as an earthbound angel with a golden halo overhead.  It’s the Jesus who’s one of us; the one who’s just like me, who knows my joys and even more so my sorrow.  It’s the Jesus who knows, like I do – like we all do – how hard life can be; and it’s the Jesus who weeps at the loss of children in an unspeakable act of violence, and who knows that somehow and in so many ways we can be better than that.  It’s the Jesus who is one of us – but who is also one with God – that changes everything and makes all the difference for me.

Jesus comes to each one of us across the years, beloved; and he does so vividly, powerfully and beautifully.  But in the midst of it all, his question remains: Who do you say that I am?  And he waits for us to answer, each one of us in our own way.

So… what do you say?  Who is Jesus… to you?

May God bless us with the faith and insight to make confessions of our own.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Angels Round About the Manger

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2017, based on Luke 2:1-20)

The late Ann Weems, that wonderful Presbyterian poet and worship leader once wrote this little piece that has kept coming to my mind in this Advent and Christmas season:

“Wouldn’t it be grand to be an angel,” she wrote, “and have as your address ‘The Realms of the Glory of God’?  And swing on rainbows, and gather stars in your pockets, winging in and out of earth in a flurry of moondust with the messages of God?  Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous, delivering the just, [and] guarding little children?”

Now there you go!  Now isn’t that the perfect image of a Christmas angel?  Granted, it is a bit childlike in its description; but I don’t know about you, but I’m realizing that so much of how I think about the story of the first Christmas and those who were a part of it comes down to how I envisioned it when I was child!  For instance, I remember when I was very little having a picture book (it might well have been the “Little Golden Book” edition of The Littlest Angel, I’m not sure, because one of the angels in the story had a slingshot sticking out of his robe, which even then I thought was very impressive!); and I remember this one drawing in the book of all the angels in heaven gathering together to sing their alleluias to the newborn king.  And here they were, all the cherubim and seraphim singing and dancing, and holding; jumping and leaping from cloud to cloud and over one another leap frog style!  Basically what it was was the multitude of the heavenly host transformed into an elementary school playground!  Just a childhood fantasy, I know, but the thing is that image has always stuck with me even as an adult.  And by the way, why wouldn’t that wonderful moment of annunciation be filled with such ethereal joy and singing, and might I add, such a whole lot of fun as well?

That’s how I wanted to see it, anyway!

However… when you read the story from scripture,  what’s the first thing the angels say?  It’s “Do not be afraid!”   And understand, they say this not just on the hillside with the shepherds, but also in the moment when the angel comes to tell Mary that God had chosen her to bear the Christ child, and also when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that this child of Mary’s was of the Holy Spirit; it’s always the same thing:  “Do not be afraid,” as though the angels’ presence had not inspired joy and celebration as much as fear and dread!

And that’s an interesting thing to think about!  For instance, it’s hard to imagine how these shepherds, who by virtue of their profession and their very nature had to have been quite tough and rough around the edges, could have been afraid of anything; and yet we’re told specifically that they were “terrified,” or in the language of the old King James translation, “sore afraid.” Perhaps the angels’ presence was so mysterious and overpowering that they might well have fled or panicked; maybe the bright radiance that suddenly cut through the night was such that for a time they were both blinded and bewildered by what was happening; or perhaps they sensed that this was a sign of some judgment, and like criminals who fear getting caught in the act, they suddenly felt the need to hide from sight!  Whatever the reason, there was fear in their hearts; for what was immediately clear, to the shepherds, as it had been to Mary and Joseph before them, was that this was no less than an appearance from a messenger of God!

So the first words of the angel needed to be one of assurance, to keep them from running away, something to help them to open their ears and their hearts to what God wanted to tell them; this amazing good news of a great joy which was for all the people, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord;” a baby, of all things, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger!   And then, as if to emphasize the the greatness of this news, there was a multitude of angels singing their praises to God, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” And as that was happening, something even more incredible than the angels’ singing began to take place: the shepherds’ fear was gone, and in its place there was wonder, and joy, and the power of God’s intervening love for his people!

And when it was all over and the angels had returned to heaven, remember that the shepherds did not take the time to think about how scared they had been, nor to reflect on what had happened to them.  No… the shepherds went, and with haste, “to see this thing which [had] happened,” that the Lord had made known to them.  Fear was gone, replaced by need to see the child and tell the good news to everyone, everywhere!

The truth is, of course, that like the shepherds, you and I are scared too.   If we’re honest, then we know that fear is all-too-much a part of our daily lives; fear over a great many things in life and death: the kind of fear that holds us back, the fear that keeps us from giving of ourselves, the fear that keeps us from loving others and offering forgiveness.  Indeed, fear paralyzes us, imprisons us and often haunts us.  But here’s the good news; just as the angels appeared to shepherds on that holy night, we too are given that truly blessed assurance that we do not have to fear.  For you see, that loving, forgiving and redeeming presence of God is always with us in the person of Jesus Christ born in the manger of Bethlehem!  He’s there with us and for us, waiting to erase our guilt, to replace our shame with joy, and to warm our hearts so that we might truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to do our own part bring peace on earth.  The glory of God that is Christmas is  always that God comes, and intervenes, and in the face of fear truly gives us tidings of comfort and joy!

Yes, beloved, the angels who were round about the manger on that holy night long ago are still with us today, telling us the good news of God’s love and urging us on this night to faith; faith in a God who loves us and walks with us in whatever we face in life, giving us the assurance of his peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

So watch the skies tonight, dear friends; keep your eyes cast toward the stars, and listen for the songs of heaven playing even now in your heart.  Have no fear; do not be afraid, for on this holy night divine, Christ is born in Bethlehem and good news is ours!

Thanks be to God for that perfect love that casts out fear . . .

And may God bless you on this Christmas night.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Round About the Manger: The Ones Who Said Yes

(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on  Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)

In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.

Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.

At least that’s how I like to think of it!

Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!

Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all!  Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!).  What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life!   I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world.  I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”

So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph?  This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create.  And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.

Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?

But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less  than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!

Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes.  “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.  Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father.  But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”

“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”

Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!

For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails!    How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!

But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger.  Incredible, isn’t it?  Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”

But the good news is that that was more than enough.  Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!

Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!”  And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!

And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.

We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!

That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.

Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes.   “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have.  It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.  As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.”   But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!

Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened.  Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift.  But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!

Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us.   When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December.  But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.

I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift.  It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live.  For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.

And the beauty part?  All we have to do is say yes!!  So say it… Say yes!!   Let our souls this day magnify the Lord!  Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!

Yes… Yes!   YES!

Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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