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For Whom Is Christ Risen Today?

(a meditation for Easter Sunrise 2019, based on John 20:1-18)

“Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!” 

Friends, that is the ancient greeting of this day, the clarion call and response of our Easter celebration.  Moreover, in one single proclamation, it encompasses the incredible, earth shaking good news that brings people of faith the world over together in triumph and victory: from small clusters of people sharing the chill of early morning on hillsides and shorelines to the multitudes who even now are gathering in sanctuaries and cathedrals filled with flowers and song.  It’s  the curious, the seeking and the believing together as one, all seeking out an empty tomb and a word of rejoicing from angels in dazzling white.  This is the “Day of Resurrection, “ and it truly unites us: for no matter our background, nationality, language, politics, tradition or even our denominational affiliation (!), as Christians we share at least this much in common:  the liberating and unifying gift of divine redemption in which we gladly proclaim, “Christ is risen–he is risen indeed!”

It’s a proclamation borne out of a singular moment: a happening, a one of a kind event and an old and familiar story in which we know the “where and when” so well, and yet never fails to stir our hearts in the retelling.  Mary Magdalene approaching the tomb “while it was still dark,” coming to this place that didn’t simply represent death, it epitomized the loss of any kind of hope; her discovery that the stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away: Peter and John literally racing to the tomb so to investigate, only to find it empty, save for the burial linens, and then – almost inexplicably – going back home, presumably to ponder what might just have happened (!); and then there’s Mary, all alone and weeping outside the tomb encountering someone she assumed to be the gardener but then realizing (when he called her by name!) that this was, in fact, Jesus himself, risen from death!

“I have seen the Lord!”  says Mary to the disciples, and as we tell her story once again this morning it is as though we have seen him as well.  Yes, we know very well what happened on that day so long ago; even the smallest of details in this story resonate with us.  The fact is, we know how to tell the story; after all, as Christians this is the culmination of our Lenten journey to the cross and beyond!  So we know all about Easter; and we do know that “Christ is Risen Indeed…”

…but the harder thing for us to understand is why.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to confess that even as we’re out here “in the wee hours” shouting our alleluias and sharing ancient greetings I’m, well… humbled.  I mean, we’re singing songs of praise and giving prayerful thanks for love and light and life, but even in all of that I find myself wondering how, in the face of the most indescribably wondrous and miraculous event in all of human history, God saw fit to make it happen; how God would sacrifice Jesus on the cross and then raise him up in Easter glory.  What did it mean to do that… truly, what does it mean?

Truly, we know that Christ the Lord is risen today – Aleluia! – but perhaps the bigger question is why, and for whom?  For whom is Christ risen today?

It would be easy for me to proclaim that Christ is risen for you and for me who are seeking to be faithful and live life with integrity and purpose and love… Christ is risen indeed for those who seek to live in the light!  But… can the same be said for those struggling in the darkness of life… and the darkness of the soul?  Is Christ risen for the prisoner alone in her cell trying to find some kind of way to put her life back together?  Is Christ risen for children born the midst of poverty, or who live in fear of violence every single day of their lives?  Is Christ risen for the one who’s suddenly facing the loss of a cherished relationship or the destruction of a home?  Is Christ risen for those who struggle with disease, for those who grieve, for those who are lost or confused about their lives, for those who have felt every day and in every way judged and marginalized and disenfranchised?  Is Christ risen for those for whom death, in all of its many guises, is a way of life?

And the answer is… yes!

For those, as scripture might put it,  who are “dwelling in deep darkness,” it is hard to conceive that Christ is risen, that death has been defeated and that life is new; but it is precisely these for whom Christ has most surely risen.  Beloved, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead for all those who dwell in the darkness that they might have the light of life!

For me, one of the most powerful elements of the Easter story is how it happens “while it was still dark,” the time that’s no longer night but yet morning.  Darkness, by its very nature, is the time for grief and hopelessness, but Christ arose to banish that darkness forever; because of the resurrection the light of a new day shone forth and life began anew with infinite possibilities; resurrection is the the only way it could have happened!

Truly, the risen Christ comes to us in risen glory to banish our darkness, yours and mine; he comes in the middle of our sin, our pain, our regret and our grieving for all that has been lost in the midst of it all.  Jesus Christ is risen to assure us once and for all that we need not fear, because now, at last, darkness is done and the day has come!  The power of death has been defeated forever, and life has prevailed; and you and I and everyone who dwells in the deep darkness can now rejoice in the light; for a new day has dawned, a day of resurrection alive with the power of divine and limitless HOPE!

For whom is Christ risen today?  Quite simply, Christ is risen for all those who need to experience that divine rebirth of heart and spirit.  Christ is risen for all those who know deep within their souls that the night, as dark and horrible as it has been, is now over, and a new day ripe with joy and celebration is about to begin.  For all the hymns sung today, for all the lilies blooming in our sanctuaries, for all the fellowship that’s to be shared amongst families and friends it can scarcely begin to express the true scope of Easter joy that comes in the resurrection.  Ultimately, it’s a gift that we’ve neither earned nor deserve, and yet it’s ours by the grace of an infinitely loving God.

And what can you say to this, except that… “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed!”

This is a great and glorious morning, beloved…  and the wondrous good news of Christ’s resurrection is ours to proclaim! So let us go forth today doing just that in our worship, our celebration and the opportunity we have here, now and in every new day from now on, to live in the light of life we’ve been given.  We have seen the Lord, beloved, so let us not be reluctant, but bold to share that news to all the world, and for the sake of all who are still mired in darkness and who need to know what light and life and resurrection truly is.

One more time, then…  Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!

Alleulia, and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 23, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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From Perplexed to Amazed

(a sermon for April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, based on Luke 24:1-12)

Whatever else one can say about Easter, it’s to say the least – the very least (!) – it’s perplexing.

Or maybe not; you see, you and I have the advantage of, as Philip Yancey has put it, “reading the Gospels from the other side of Easter;” that is, we’ve come here this morning well aware of how the story turns out.  The moment those women discover the empty tomb, we already know what’s happened; such is our familiarity with the story that we don’t think twice at the thought of angels “in dazzling clothes” suddenly standing there beside them, nor do we feel the women’s terror at their question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”   We’re not even particularly concerned as to what Peter might find when finally he runs to the tomb and stoops down to look inside, because – spoiler alert (!) – Jesus isn’t there, but has risen!

We’ve heard the good news and it’s that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and that not only sets the stage for the whole rest of the Gospel story – the two men on the Road to Emmaus who encounter the Risen Lord, the utter stubbornness of one “Doubting Thomas” because he hasn’t, the disciples’ grilled fish breakfast with Jesus on the beach, Peter pleading with Jesus three times over(!),“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”  (John 21:16) – not only all that and more, but there’s also the aptly named “Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to his disciples, and us, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19).  We know what happened there at early dawn on the first day of the week: Jesus is alive, and that says everything about who we are as believers and it’s the central truth of faith that makes us who we are as the church.  Because of the resurrection this is us, beloved, and that’s what we’ve come here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate and for which we give our God thanks and praise!

But as I said before, we know and understand this because we know the story inside and out; but what about those who were there on the day itself?  David Lose points out that despite all the variables on how the story gets told in scripture, “one of the common elements of the resurrection stories across the gospels is that no one expects the resurrection… and no one, quite frankly, believes it at first.”  It’s true; no matter our familiarity with the story or how much of centuries’ worth of faith and tradition has been layered upon the gospel accounts, the fact remains that Easter begins not with loud praises and triumphant songs of “hallelujah,” but  rather with some women bringing spices to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body; these caring, grieving friends of the deceased seeking to do what needed to be done and have it be finished, only to encounter something unexpected, something unsettling, something terrifying, amazing and even hopeful all at once; but ultimately something that’s altogether impossible and utterly… perplexing.

And why wouldn’t it be?  I mean, the very thought that someone who was dead – three days dead, mind you – could have possibly risen to life; well, that’s just not possible, that’s against the laws of nature, because death is irreversible!  Dead is dead; and in a wonderful quote I read this week from Anna Carter Florence, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Indeed, the logical response to anyone suggesting otherwise is disbelief!  So it’s no wonder at all that the rest of the disciples quite literally dismissed this news brought forth by the women as “an idle tale,” which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious,” and was understood by the people of that time as something akin to crazy talk; in other words, what these women were saying was nothing more or less than utter nonsense!

And as Luke tells the story, at least, that’s pretty much the end of it!  We do read about how Peter was moved to run and go check out the empty tomb for himself, stooping in to look inside at the grave clothes that were there, but even then we’re told he left wondering what might have happened; as The Message translates it, “He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”  That’s it; Peter just goes home and nothing else happens!  You know, I have to confess that as someone who likes his stories to come to a clear, definitive, and triumphant conclusion, that’s kind of disappointing! I mean, I really want to have that scene from John’s gospel with Mary weeping outside of the tomb and mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener (!); or at the very least, I want to hear Matthew’s account of a great earthquake and how “the angel rolled the stone away!” (As the song goes, “Alleluia, what a happy day!”)  Even in Mark we get the image of the women having “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (16:8)  But in Luke, all we’re left with is a not-so idle tale and unbelieving disciples; all in all an Easter story without much of any real, first hand evidence of the resurrection whatsoever!

Like I said, it’s perplexing, to say the least…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Perhaps our being perplexed is in fact the first step toward… amazement… and even believing!

It should be said here that the lack of, shall we say, empirical proof as to Jesus having risen from the dead is nothing new. In fact, for over 2,000 years now, thinkers and teachers and scientists and theologians have discussed, debated and literally fought over seeking to provide some sort of historical “proof” of the resurrection; from the very beginning there has been skepticism as to the truth of what is the core belief of our Christian faith!  And yet, despite the lack of any kind of real physical evidence, we do believe in the Risen Christ!  We know in our heart of hearts that’s it true, to the point that our very lives both now and eternally are brokered upon it; indeed, the proclamation that we make as Christians that God is even now bringing forth his kingdom into the world is all because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

We believe, you see… even though we weren’t there to see it happen, we still know it’s true; and we know it is because we’ve experienced it.

Ultimately Easter is more than a mere moment in history that took place just outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago on a morning not unlike this one; there is more to the resurrection than historical fact and empirical data and our understanding of what happened amounts to more than simply finding agreement in the differing accounts of the four gospel writers.  Easter, you see, is about what God has done in declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love is more enduring than tragedy.  Easter is all about the overwhelming effect of God’s love to the world; a loved offered without partiality and in more abundance than the world had ever known can ever begin to comprehend.

Easter is the inevitable result of God reaching out to the whole world through Jesus, who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love to those who don’t know about it and can’t begin to understand it because they’ve never really felt it as their own.   Easter is about love unwarranted and love undeserved but love that’s wholly offered; it’s about love extended, but not merely to the righteous uprights and those who already believe they’ve already proven themselves, but also and especially to those who believe themselves to be devoid of life and without any hope of redemption.  Easter says to each and every one of us that there is life for all from the Lord of all, demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior who has given us his victory over sin and death forever!

Actually, you know, at the end of the day this movement from being perplexed to feeling utter amazement comes down to a distance of precisely 18 inches!  That’s right, eighteen inches; that is, the distance from here, the head which insists on facts and evidence and provable data, to here, the heart, which knows the love of Christ and the truth of the resurrection.  Those eighteen inches are the difference between Easter being merely an interesting story and an intriguing possibility, and it being the key to our faith and hope in Jesus and his kingdom as well as our very lives as his disciples.

It was, after all, those eighteen inches that moved Mary and the other women from confusion to fear to utter amazement.  It was those 18 inches that compelled Peter to leave the other disciples behind, so to run to the tomb to look inside for himself, and led him to be “wondering to himself what had [actually] happened,” which turned out to be the first steps of a far greater journey of discipleship.  It was 18 inches that opened the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus so that they could actually see the Risen Christ who’d been walking with them all along; and it was 18 inches that a week later led Thomas to no longer doubt but believe, confessing from his heart that right before his eyes stood his Lord and his God!

And it’s the same 18 inches that will move you and me today from perplexed to amazed.  The good news of this day  and every day is that resurrection was not just some one-time-only event breaking of the laws of nature as we know them.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an on-going gift of grace that is fresh and brand new with every heart that is transformed and every life that is made into something glorious by virtue of his victory over death.  That’s how, as Craig Barnes has written, that despite the world’s constant attempts to make it into something else, Easter can never really be about bunnies, springtime or girls in cute new dresses.  Easter, he says, is “about more hope than we can handle,” because first, last and always it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ here and now and how Jesus is ever and always in our midst and in our hearts; ever present in the words we speak, in the love we show, even in our questions and our doubts.  Christ is risen, and he is here now to share his power – his truth, his love, his strength, his faithfulness, his glory, his victory over death and the grave – with you and me and all those who would receive it.

This is the gospel that we proclaim and  that we believe.  We may not fully grasp the depth of his Passion, or fathom the meaning of the empty tomb; but we stand amazed at it, shouting in wonder and amazement at his glory and embracing his love; rejoicing in the truth that whether we live or we die, we belong to Christ!

So let us rejoice, beloved, in the power of the risen Christ and in the power of transforming hope; let us proclaim the truth of how death has indeed been swallowed up in victory, to the praise of our brother, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!

Christ is risen, beloved…. He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia!  And AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Joy, Life, Sermon

 

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When the Stones Shout Out

(a sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday, based on Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11)

There are just some moments in life for which nothing else will do but loud, joyous, full-throated, totally spontaneous yet wholly intentional, and ultimately unbridled shouts of praise!

The Red Sox win the World Series; the Patriots win the Super Bowl… again (!); or you’re at a concert and you’ve just heard your favorite singer give the most amazing musical performance ever.  Or it’s that moment you suddenly know, without any shadow of any doubt, that you’re in love and you “don’t care who knows it (!),” or it’s what happens when you get the news you’re going to be parents – or grandparents (!) – or maybe it’s that singular, once in a lifetime,  experience of revelation when all at once and maybe just for an instant, everything in your life makes perfect sense!  But whatever it is, understand that more than just a rousing cheer what I’m talking about here is this instinctive, primal, even primordial need and compulsion to cry out for joy!  It’s the praise that emanates from head, heart and soul, and it’s quite literally wired into our DNA:  Theodore J. Wardlaw of Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas writes that even babies know that kind of praise.  “She doesn’t know her own name; she doesn’t know the name of God; she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but she knows even at that early age that – with the beginning of dawn – the only appropriate thing to do is to sing a baby song of praise.”

Actually, scripture is filled with examples of that kind of joyous praise: the Psalmist using every imaginable instrument – from “lute and harp” to “loud clanging cymbals” – in order to proclaim, “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (150:3-6); Mary reacting to the news of the Christ Child growing in her womb, “’My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” (Luke 1:46-47); or even the awe struck reaction of good ol’ “Doubting” Thomas when he finally understood that the Risen Christ was standing right before him:  “’My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  Once again, it is in us to praise; but even more than this, as Wardlaw goes on to say, all this seems to suggest “that praise lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God… because nothing is more appropriate or more timely than praise.”

And that, beloved, is in good part what the “triumphal entry” of Palm Sunday is all about.

Now this account of the Palm Sunday parade along the streets of Jerusalem is one of a handful of stories that appear in all four of the gospels; which tells us, first of all, just how important of an event it was in the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry and most especially in how it figures into everything else that is about to unfold.  This is, at least in a storytelling sense, the true beginning of the Passion story; so it’s significant in that sense alone.  It’s also kind of an unusual story where Jesus is concerned, as it does seem at first glance to be “the one departure from Jesus’ aversion to acclaim.” (Philip Yancey, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”) What with all the Hosanna shouting and the adoring crowds spreading clothes and tree branches across the road, it’s to say the least a unique moment; for “though Jesus usually recoiled from such displays of fanaticism, this time he let them yell.”

In fact, did you notice something about Luke’s version of this story we shared this morning?  For one thing, there’s not a palm or even a “Hosanna” to be found!  In this version, though there is reference made to people “spreading their cloaks on the road,” as well as on the back of the colt on which Jesus was riding (and we do get the account as to circumstances how that colt was acquired), as Luke tells the story you really don’t get any sense that there were palm branches being waved in the air, nor is there any reference to a “happy throng” of children dancing ahead of the approaching Messiah!

And yet, despite the conspicuous absence of, as the song goes, the “green palms and blossoms gay” that was part and parcel of “the festal preparation,” there is no absence of utter joy and unbridled praise, starting from the very moment that Jesus was “approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives” down into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’”   It’s funny, you know; a phrase that we use a lot today would seem to apply in this circumstance: that whole thing appeared to happen organically; but the truth of it that Jesus’ disciples just “did what came naturally,” [Wardlaw] and so did everyone else!   The closer this “triumphal entry” came to the city itself, the more people there were who were moved to join them; and the more people who gathered along the city streets or who followed on behind, or who ran on ahead to lay down their cloaks for a makeshift royal carpet and yes, to wave some palm branches in the air in royal tribute to us, the louder the shouting became!  In that moment of grand celebration and of prophetic fulfillment, “They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing was more appropriate or timely” – or absolutely required at that moment (!) – than for them to burst forth shouts of praise!

And you know what happened next; it was so joyous, so spontaneous and uncontrollable, so filled with praise and thanksgiving unto God and the King who comes in his name, and perhaps most of all,  so very, very loud that immediately the powers that be, that is the gathered Pharisees, had to put a stop to it.  And so they went to Jesus – actually, in the true fashion of Pharisees in every place and time they probably sent a committee (!) – and in the name of all things ordered and correct, they told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” [The Message]  Order them to stop…. Now!

And to this, Jesus simply responds – and I have to imagine it’s with a sad smile and a shake of the head – “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It’s an amazing response; one that affirms that what was happening that morning on those streets of Jerusalem was not only appropriate, it was necessary; this was praise that needed to be expressed, the clear vision of God’s glory being proclaimed with singular and overwhelming intensity!  And that’s how we usually read that verse, isn’t it; that you can tell the “rabble to be quiet” all you want, but you can’t stop the praising.  Tell this crowd to stop its praising, and the very rocks that line the walls of this sacred city of Jerusalem will do it for them!  Don’t you see, you can’t stop it:  no matter what you do, you Pharisees, the shouting will continue and all of creation will keep on singing and praising God’s holy name: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Hosanna in the highest!

And you know, really, that should have been the end of it right there; at this point, the Pharisees should have simply gone home grumbling, the celebration should have continued unabated and there should have been all rejoicing at the coming of God’s Messiah. Or at least that’s how it should have been. But of course, as we know, there was more to it than that.

It’s been pointed out by some biblical scholars that along with the idea that the crowd’s shouting could not possibly have been silenced, Jesus’ words about the stones crying also may well have been a reference to some words of judgment spoken by the prophet Habakkuk that says that going against God would make “the very stones… cry out from the wall… the plaster respond[ing] from the woodwork.” [2:11]. There’s also a passage from the Old Testament Book of Joshua that speaks of a stone serving as a witness to the faithlessness of God’s people [24:27]  So now we have this incredible faith-filled proclamation of God’s providence and salvation, and what does Jesus say to the Pharisees who would shut it all down, and who would condemn Jesus, the very one who comes in the name of God, to death, “even death on a cross?”

He says, even in the silence the stones would shout out… but this time in judgment.

It’s interesting, you know; and as many times as I return to this story and begin my own walk of faith and discipleship on this so-named “holy” week I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around it: how on Sunday there’s this huge crowd waving palms and shouting their hosannas unto Jesus, the one known to them, proclaimed by them as their Messiah, an yet come Friday morning, the same crowds are angrily calling for his crucifixion.  As many times as we’ve heard the story I can’t even begin to fathom of how Jesus – the one who was and is our teacher, our healer and our friend, the one who has brought light and life into the world – would be betrayed and abandoned and denied by those closest to him; or how he was so angrily – and easily (!) – mocked, beaten and condemned to a horrible death on a cross, a tortuous death reserved for the worst of criminals.  All this, and so much more than this, even as we all stand again at the foot of the cross, remembering his agony and suffering even as he spoke aloud to those who had condemned him, saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

It’s the journey we all share – the inevitable movement from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday – but I don’t know about you, but as we draw ever nearer now to the cross there’s a question I cannot help but ask:  Where’s the shouting and praise now?  When did “hosanna in the highest” become “crucify him?” And was I, am I, there “when they crucified my Lord?”  What happens when in my silence the stones shout out?

It’s a somber and difficult question, to be sure; but beloved, it’s an important one as today we consider who Jesus truly is and what even now he offers us.  I hoping you really heard the song we sang during the offertory, about how there “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Shout for Me,” because not only is it a great old spiritual, but the words of the chorus say it all:  “Rocks, keep silent!  Jesus comes to set me free.  Rocks, keep silent! I’m gonna shout in victory!  Rocks, keep silent! Jesus reigns in majesty.  Ain’t no rock gonna shout for me.”  It’s a song that not only reminds us on this day of days who Jesus is and what he came to do, but it also tells us that if we fail to give him our praises, if we turn away from him in his hour of need, if we deny him not only with our words but by our lives then all that will be left is the sound of the stones shouting in our place; each and all bearing witness to our silence amidst sin and despair.

Beloved, on this day of all days, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ we cannot stay silent.  We cannot let our praises go unsung!  Because, if I might quote Theodore Wardlaw’s words one more time, this isn’t “pollyanna praise, it’s not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling past the graveyard praise, not something sweet place among us just to make the world more beautiful praise.  It’s praise  that instead gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly,” and it’s praise that reminds us that in the name of the one whose name we praise we are rescued, we are forgiven, we are redeemed and we are made alive, now and forever.

Ain’t no rock gonna shout that for me! How could it ever?

We are not meant to be silent, beloved… we are meant to sing and to shout and to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus our Christ!  It’s as simple and as profound and, as we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, as agonizing as that.

So… let our praises be heard!  And as Paul proclaimed in joy and praise, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the eart, and every tongue” – every tongue (!) – “should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2019 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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