RSS

Tag Archives: Journey to the Cross

The Light That Prevails

(a sermon for March 29, 2020, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:20-36)

As one who has spent some time camping out in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I can personally vouch for the importance of being properly prepared; and being properly prepared means having one of these – a Coleman Lantern – on the trip with you; as far as I’m concerned it’s the one thing that really cuts through a dark, enveloping night in the middle of nowhere!   Now, the purists among us will argue that it’s the light of a campfire that truly does the job, but firelight is fleeting and can’t be moved; likewise, the beam of a flashlight is narrow and limited, not to mention the fact that it exists at the mercy of a battery!  But a lantern; well, it can illuminate the entire campsite and draw hordes of blackflies all at the same time!

That said, even the mighty Coleman Lantern can run out of fuel; and if you’ve been out in the woods at night when that’s happened, it’s actually pretty interesting.  At first, the change is almost imperceptible: the light of the lantern starts to fade, but it doesn’t seem all that different; a little less brilliant, perhaps, and a tad more subdued.  But after a few moments the light does start to dim considerably, and things you could once see clearly start to lose their detail and focus; whereas before you might have been able to read a book or write a letter or play cards (!), you can’t see to do that anymore.  Even the campsite begins to feel like it’s closing in around you, because the light that was once flooding all around now just exists in a tiny glow surrounded by this vast darkness. And you sit there and you watch the light of the lantern’s mantle until it finally just… goes out… and now it’s very, very dark indeed.

One of the prevailing images of the Christian faith, one that’s found throughout scripture, is that of light.  And in the church it’s an image we carry with us as we make our way through the seasons of our faith and the gospel story: for instance, during Advent, we tell of the prophets’ promise of a light that is to come; at Christmas, we celebrate that light’s coming in Jesus, who is the light of the world; and during Epiphany, we rejoice in discovering the meaning and great expanse of that light.

But now we’re deep into the season of Lent, in which scripturally and spiritually we’re drawing ever closer to the cross… and it’s different.  As the days pass and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, we begin to see that the light is slowly growing dim; and that the walls of darkness are starting to close in around Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus himself confirms this in our text for this morning as he tells the crowd at Jerusalem that “just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (12:24) for it to bear fruit, so also is he moving inexorably toward his death.  There’s no avoiding the darkness that’s to come; indeed, very soon now in the Gospel story this brilliant light will be extinguished through acts of betrayal, desertion, humiliation and finally, an excruciating death on a wooden cross.

Speaking both pastorally and personally, this growing and inevitable darkness is one of the most difficult aspects of our shared journey through Lent and into Holy Week, most especially this year; and yet, it’s precisely in the midst of this encroaching darkness that we discover what God’s plan has been all along.  As Jesus proclaims it, “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified;” (v. 23) understanding that this is a glory of another kind: not glory in the sense of worldly patterns of power or popularity, but divine glory that is revealed in suffering and death.  Truly, in what the world regarded as unabashed tragedy and the triumph of evil – the very Son of God crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity – our God was in fact proven victorious over sin and death forever, and in the process true and lasting light was revealed to the whole world, never to be extinguished again! 

And if all of this sounds like contradiction on a cosmic scale, you’re right:  it’s in fact the one glorious paradox that lies at the heart of our Christian faith: that our life, our true life, comes about through death.  Now, by our human way of thinking, that makes very little sense: we recognize that a seed that falls to the ground will likely die forever; yet by God’s intent, it’s the seed dying that’s required for it to bear fruit.  Likewise, the execution of one man on a cross would almost certainly signal for us not only the end of a life, but also the end of a movement and the end of hope; because our logic says that whatever it was the man stood for would be dead and gone along with the man. 

But you see, that’s not how God views it; in fact, it’s ever and always been God’s plan that the death of this man, his very incarnation on earth, would serve as the ultimate act of grace and love.  This was God’s means to conquer death forever, and the way God would assure his closeness to you and to me both in this life and in the life to come.

What we’re talking about here is the difference between what the Greeks described as chronos becoming kairos, which simply put, is what happens when our time (chronos) becomes God’s time (kairos).  It’s what happens when God comes to work a blessing even into our worst moments of suffering; it’s what happens when God enters into our places of pain and fear and anger and regret and sin, so to bring us closer to him and make us a place in his kingdom; it’s what happens when God comes even into our deep and encroaching darkness to bring light. 

For you see, the good news is that however intently that darkness seeks to overtake us… this light will prevail.

This is an important truth for us to remember, not only in these Lenten days of reflection, but also in all of our days as we make our way through life’s myriad and difficult challenges, most especially the ones we’re facing right about now. 

You know, one of the things over the past couple of weeks that has felt strange, and a bit ironic, is that even though that with the coming of spring our days are finally (!) getting longer, what with all the bad news surrounding the Coronavirus, in some ways it actually feels darker somehow!  In fact, I dare say that for many of us right now our anxieties and fears are such that we really do feel as though the light that has illumined our way seems as diminished as a failing lantern.  

That’s why it’s good news indeed that even in the moments when it feels like this darkness is going to overwhelm us we discover that there’s a greater light shining, a light that will prevail; if only we’ll let it in. Ours, you see, is the God of light who is relentless in coming to us even amidst the deepest of this world’s darkness and, it should be noted, is determined to shine forth that light amidst our own capacity for darkness as well.  Ours is a divine and graceful love that is determined to transform these days of difficulty and uncertainty into moments of victory and wonder and insight, bringing us unending light that will prevail for the way now and forever, and in the process, making each one of us “children of light” (v. 36)

At the very center of our Christian faith is this truth that in Jesus Christ, God was willing to enter into our suffering; and now as in our Lenten journey we draw ever closer now with Jesus to that “hill far away,” bearing the crosses of our own lives and living as we do, it’s important for us to remember that his light does prevail… as will ours.  As difficult and as overwhelming as these days have been for all of us, we can find our comfort and our hope in the fact that our time is God’s time, and even now God is seeking to work a blessing in and through our lives… as persons and as a people; as families and friends; as communities, as nations and as a world; and yes, as the church of Jesus Christ.  His is the light that prevails, beloved; so let each one of us let that light shine in!

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 29, 2020 in Current Events, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

Tags: , ,

We Were There

His name was Alan, and he’d been a member of our church for many years; at least he’d been there since before I was pastor. I had come to ask him if he might consider becoming a deacon.  And after a long, long silence, he looked at me and with a tone of voice I’m still not sure was half-joking or wholly serious, he answered, “Well, I’m very honored… but I’m not sure you want someone like me to be a Deacon.”

Not sure of how I should respond, I asked him how that could be, and he said, “You see, in my last church, I once walked out of a Passion Play.  I’d been given the part of Pilate, and the most important thing I had to do as Pilate was to send Jesus to be crucified – but I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it!  I knew it was just a play, and this was just a part I was supposed to play, but to think that this man Pilate could have sentenced God’s own Son to death… to that kind of a death, that was too much.  It literally hurt to think about it!

“Maybe it hit too close to home, I don’t know,” Alan went on, “but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words… but I didn’t want any part of it… so I just walked out, and left them all high and stranded.”

Now, being the pastor, I probably said something benign like, “that’s OK, Alan; you can still be a Deacon…”  But what I still wish to this day I’d said was, “YES!    You really understand, don’t you?  You totally get what happened!  It’s like YOU WERE THERE!”

You see, the truth is that we all tend to gloss over this part of the story.  If we attend to it at all, as we usually do about now, our habit is nonetheless to keep a safe and polite distance. After all, we say to ourselves, it’s an ancient narrative, something that happened in a place a world away 2,000 years ago and long before any of us were around; it really doesn’t have any direct relevance to today’s world.  Moreover, it’s also a horrific story; the violence that’s depicted there is heinous and unthinkable, and the ending is tragic! And after Palm Sunday last week and coming up on Easter now, it’s really not the kind of uplifting story we want to hear about now.  And besides, we may even conclude, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it?  This crucifixion story has nothing to do with how we live our lives here and now; the bottom line? We weren’t there!

Of course, if we had been there, it’d been different:

We wouldn’t have fallen away like the spineless disciples; and we certainly wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter;

And we wouldn’t have been shouting with the rest of the crowd to crucify him; I’d like to think we’d be the ones who were out there still crying out for all we’re worth, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

And I know we wouldn’t have stood idly by and watched the powers-that-be and their thug soldiers beat Jesus and mock him.  We’d have done everything we could to save him, or if we couldn’t do that, then at least we’d gone with him….

But, of course, that’s not really worth thinking about because we weren’t there!

Or were we?

We need to remember that ultimately, what we remember this week is not about an isolated travesty of justice and faithlessness on the part of a very few people in the rather smallish city of Jerusalem during a Passover celebration some 2,000 years ago.  Historically speaking, this is how it all unfolded, but in every other way, what happened is not that small. What we remember tonight is about human sin.  It’s about the kind of atrocities that humanity is capable of, and how quickly and easily even the most seemingly innocent among us are drawn in.

It’s about death; yes, the death of a man on a cross, a man who was the Son of God.  But it’s also about our death, yours and mine, the death we have earned, the death we greatly deserve.

It’s about Jesus, yes; but in a very real way, it’s about you and me; about our hearts and our propensity to go against them time after time after time.

And it’s about all those times when we say and do all the things which we know we should not do, even if it’s denying Jesus.  Even if it’s joining with the mob when they shout “Crucify him.” Even if it’s cheering when Pilate gives the order.

There is one difference between us and the disciples, however.  You remember how during supper when Jesus said to them, one of you will betray me, and the disciples all answer, “Is it I?  Could it be me?  Not me, Lord…?” Here’s the difference: we don’t have to ask; we already know.

When we have the chance to speak our faith or to act on it, but like Peter, choose instead to keep mum about it, in some small way or another, we deny him.

When we take the path of least resistance, like so many of the disciples, or put ourselves and our personal gain over God, like Judas, we betray him.

When we persist, again and again, in walking our own road rather than the way of the cross, we crucify him.

We were there.  We are there.

And the reason that we’re here tonight is because there is grace that comes in knowing it, confessing it, and above all, in accepting his gift of pardon and salvation for our part in it.

Remember, Jesus went to the cross not to condemn us, but to save us. So as we draw nearer to the cross, let us be honest about it and remember who we are… and above all, let us remember who Jesus is.

Amen.

c. 2013 and 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 30, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Reflections, Sermon

 

Tags: , , ,

Who Is This?

(a sermon for April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11 and Philippians 2:5-11)

To begin with, we have to understand that there was a buzz about it all; the kind of crowd murmuring that’s reserved for those moments when something really big is about to happen.  So not only were people talking, they were showing up in droves!

I remember back in those heady, uncertain and very patriotic days after 9/11 a rumor surfaced one morning that then President Bush was going to be a surprise speaker at a political fundraiser happening nearby, and that his presidential motorcade would, in fact, be passing by on our road that very afternoon!  To be honest, when I first heard this I was skeptical; but as the day wore on, and more and more people were calling the church office to let me know that the President of the United States (!) was going to be driving by that afternoon, I’ll admit that things started to get a little exciting!   Because word was getting around: by 3:00, the front lawn of the church was filled with people, as was that entire stretch of Black Point Road; men and women, tons of kids from all over town (apparently word had gotten out at school that day!), folks who’d brought their flags and signs and lawn chairs, all lined up to be a part of this big moment and to cheer on the president.

And sure enough, around 4:30, down the road came this rather imposing entourage of long, black and official looking government vehicles… that proceeded to speed down our little road with nary any hesitation and no regard for the posted speed limit!  Believe me when I tell you that there was barely enough time to clap our hands, much less cheer and wave a flag! It was only later on that we learned that this was in fact a decoy motorcade, a precaution devised by the Secret Service because the president had opted to drive his boat to this event up the coast from Kennebunkport!  Good idea for him, I suppose, and as a matter of security an appropriate strategy; but at the end of the day, all we in the crowd were left with as we returned home was… disappointment!

Well, sometimes the promise of a thing doesn’t live up to the hype… or the hope.

Butmake no mistake, there was no such disappointment to be found amongst the crowds of people who were lining the streets on that fateful morning in Jerusalem; for the one they were coming to see  was Jesus, making his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The anticipation and excitement that day was palpable! People had come from everywhere just so they could catch even a glimpse of this processional and the man who at the center of it; but understand that more than simply a first century version of the Macy’s Parade, Jesus’ arrival was a happening of great religious and political significance that, as Matthew tells this story, had quite literally thrown “the whole city [into] turmoil.”

What’s interesting is that if you look at the original Greek of this passage, the word used for “turmoil” is seio, which translated literally means “earthquake;” it’s in fact where we get our word “seismograph.”  We are meant to understand here that Jesus coming into Jerusalem was nothing less than an “earth shaking” event, and truly, everything about that day bears out the description: the waving of palm branches in the air; the crowd laying their cloaks on the ground to create a makeshift carpet fit for visiting royalty; children and adults alike leading Jesus along the road and following on behind – the people who’ve come to see the parade have now become a part of it (!) – and they’re singing and dancing as they go, all amidst growing cries of “Hosanna” and joyous shouts of acclamation.

It’s noisy, it’s chaotic, it’s frenzied… and it’s truly a rich and powerful moment of exuberant affirmation and glory; the kind of victorious greeting one would expect to be given to a conquering hero or a returning king; an interesting notion, considering that the recipient of these accolades has come into town not leading a chariot of battle nor riding on the back of a white stallion… but rather after the manner of a servant; riding to town on the back of a donkey (or, as Matthew wants us to take quite literally as a matter of prophecy,  “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”)  It’s everything these people have been waiting for, and absolutely nothing they expect; so it’s no wonder at all that in the midst all this turmoil the whole city of Jerusalem seems to be asking the same question:

Who is this?  Who is this man Jesus?

Now, understand that most of the people that day knew full well who this man Jesus was; or at least who they understood him to be.  These crowds were greeting Jesus as the Lord’s Messiah, the coming of the Son of King David sent to overthrow the Roman government and establish a new kingdom of Israel.  And the people were right – after a fashion – except that this new kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming was not based on the powers and principalities of the world but rather was a kingdom of God: a realm established out of the love that God himself was pouring out upon the world and upon his own beloved people; a love that was stronger than hate, a love that would even triumph over death itself.

This, you see, is what they misunderstood about Jesus on that first Palm Sunday morning of celebration; this is what raised the ire of the Roman government and offended the religious authorities of his day; and ultimately, what led to his crucifixion: simply put, he was at that very moment of triumphal entry – and continues to be even today – a challenge and a threat to every one of the powers that be in this world; and moreover, to every assumption we ever make about the nature of wealth, power, position, identity and purpose apart from mercy and majesty of God.

Who is this?  Who is this man Jesus?  It was the question they were asking on that fateful day… and it’s a question that humanity continues to ask even now, even 2,000 years later.

Who is this? He is, in the words of Kenneth Woodward, “the hinge on which the door of history swings, the point at which eternity intersects with time, the Savior who redeems time by drawing all things to himself.”  He is the one, who despite the fact that within three days of arriving unto the accolades of the crowd in Jerusalem, was summarily arrested, tried and convicted and then, at the behest of that same fickle crowd was executed as the commonest of criminals, remains the dominant figure of Western culture and the one who is at the absolute center of all we hold as Christians to be true in and about our faith.  Jesus is the one who “cometh to bring us salvation,” and who, quoting David Lose now, “can declare us not just acceptable [before God] but as blessed and beloved.” And, Lose goes on, we know this is true because “Jesus’ journey to the cross shows us just how far he was willing to go to demonstrate that for us.”

That’s who Jesus is, beloved… something that’s very important for you and I remember now as Jesus once again comes riding into the Jerusalem of our lives, that we might walk with him from the pinnacle of Palm Sunday glory to the pits of death’s dark tomb on Good Friday, that we might stand with him as he remains obedient to God:

Standing with him even amidst the betrayal and desertion of those closest to him; even as he suffers the humiliation, degradation and violence of Roman soldiers, of Pilate and Caiaphas, of the mocking, jeering crowd that surrounds him; even as the crown of thorns tears into his skull and he feels the thud of a reed slammed across his head; even as he’s spit upon, and lashed and beaten, and finally, nailed him to a wooden cross, left to face a slow and agonizing death in the hot desert sun;

Standing with him even as he reaches out to those who have crucified him, praying “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do;” (Luke 23:34) even as he promises the thief hanging beside him the gift of paradise; even as he willingly shoulders all the pain, and the horror and the death that awaits every human being, recognizing that in doing so he would bring that hurting, sinful world into joyous reconciliation with God who considers each one to be blessed in his sight; even when, at the very end, “crying out with a loud voice, [he says], ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit.’” (Luke 23:46)

Even then… even when “the earth [shakes] and the rocks… split” (Matthew 27:51) in all of creation’s turmoil, and “while the sun’s light fail[s],” (Luke 23:45) still he calls us to go with him, all the way… knowing that the end of this story is not the end at all, and that there is more that is yet to come, a glorious promise both abundant and eternal that will be fulfilled, and is ours if only we will follow.

That’s who Jesus is, beloved.

What’s interesting about our text this morning is that at the end of this question of who Jesus is the crowds, I suspect for the sake of trying to make some kind of sense of everything that was happening around them, were quick to come to their own conclusion: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” they say. And they were right about that: Jesus was a prophet, a proclaimer of the truth of God, but as the next few days would reveal to the world, he was and is so much more.  He is the Son of David, the one who comes in the name of the Lord; he is the Messiah, who is Christ the Lord; he is King of Kings, Lord of Lords… but at the very heart of it all, he’s the humble lowly king who rides into town on the back of a donkey, humbling himself  “to the point of death – even death on a cross,” so that you and I no longer have to face the judgement of sin, but in divine forgiveness instead have the way be made open to us for eternal life!

I’m reminded here of an old Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown and Linus are standing next to each other, staring at a star-filled sky.  “Would you like to see a falling star?”  Charlie Brown asks.  “Sure,” Linus responds.   But then, after some thought, he adds,  “Then again, I don’t know.  I’d hate to have it fall just on my account.”

The glorious truth of our faith, friends, is that a star did fall on our account.  A star gave up its brilliance, its lofty position on high just that we might shine forever.  So often at Christmastime we speak of how God came down to earth; well, this is the point of God coming down and the fulfillment of every hope we have ever or will ever have.  Ours is the God who came to us in in Jesus, the one who as Paul so eloquently proclaims it, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”  Like the lamb who was willingly led to slaughter, Jesus died on our account, the perfect sacrifice for our righteousness before God.

Who is this Jesus?   He is the one who God has “highly exalted;” his is “the name that is above every name;” the name at which “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”  He is Christ our Lord, to the glory of God the Father; he is our way, our truth, our life… and when we know that to be true, there is suddenly very good reason for joyous acclamation!

May this be true for each one of us as we move now into this truly “holy” week that’s ahead… so that we might truly give him praise on the Day of Resurrection to come!

Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 9, 2017 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

Tags: , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: