An Easter Sermon: “Seeing and Being Sent”

It was a great privilege for me this morning to give the Easter message at my father-in-law’s church. He was rushed into emergency brain surgery last Saturday so was obviously not able to preach this weekend. The invitation to speak came early in the week, and I didn’t hesitate to accept; this was a way for me help in a health situation that makes me feel helpless. John 26 was the RCL reading for this week, so I took it as my text and titled the message “Seeing and Being Sent.”

Here is an excerpt from the closing, slightly revised because I didn’t say it quite as I would have liked this morning (certainly not the first or the last time that will happen!):

There is just one more thing we shouldn’t miss.Eye John records a final few words between Jesus and Thomas. It seems they were meant less for Thomas than for all those who would come after him. These words are for the first readers of John’s Gospel and every audience after. They are for us. Echoing his prayer in John 17:20, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It brings us back to that question: What is required of those being sent from their encounter with the resurrected Jesus? What is required of you and me? We have not been privileged to encounter the risen Christ in his physical form on Easter morning as they did. But we are sent, so what kind of “seeing” is required of us?

The seeing required of those who are sent is the mode of seeing that the biblical writers describe as “faith.” Faith is not blindness nor is it simple seeing. Rather, faith is the particular way of seeing that corresponds to the way in which God reveals himself. The author of Hebrews says that faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (11:1). While there seems here to be no sight involved in faith, just a few verses later it says that faith is a matter of seeing but seeing that which is promised  “from a distance” (11:13).  Faith is seeing, but it is not the mode of physical seeing the disciples were privileged to have prior to their sending.

This does not mean that faith is insufficient. Its sufficiency, however, depends not ultimately on us but on faith’s object. When it comes to seeing and being sent, the good news of Easter is that we are carried along by one whose faith is stronger than ours could ever be; we are carried along by the risen, ascended Christ who intercedes for us even now. Continue reading

A Good Friday Sermon by John Webster

Since Christmas I have been slowly reading a collection of John Webster’s sermons, The Grace of Truth. It includes twenty six homilies given between 1999 and 2005. I have been I long-time admirer of John’s work and had the privilege of studying at Aberdeen, so I scooped this volume up as soon as it appeared. I was not disappointed; here is a first rate Protestant theologian at work: careful attention to the text, wise theological reasoning, and all the while the lived existence of the Christian church kept in view.

The following sermon was preached on Good Friday at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in April 2001. The sermon was titled “The Triumph of Divine Resolve,” and its text was Isaiah 53:6, 10.

We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken johnwebster2place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?

It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.

For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” [...] Continue reading

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent (Walter Breuggemann)

“A New World Birthed,” Walter Breuggemann (Dec. 19, 2004)

Each of the Gospel writers begins the Gospel story in a different way, and Matthew does it with this remarkable story of the birth of the baby that is on the lips of an angel in a dream to Joseph. Before that, the part that I didn’t read in Matthew 1, is a long genealogy of 17 begats about father to son, son to son to son, all the way back to Father Abraham. TAngels Attendhe genealogy goes up till Joseph, except that Matthew plays a trick on us, because he traces this royal pedigree, but then at the last minute, in a trick, he tells us that Joseph is not really the father of this new baby, the one we celebrate at Christmas. There are some important things to notice about this narrative of the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew.

The first thing to notice is that the whole message to Joseph happens at night when he was relaxed and his guard was down. And in the night we are told that the angel came and said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Now that is a mouthful. It is a mouthful from an angel, a messenger of God, one sent from heaven to earth, a message given from outside, not in human terms, not in earthly terms, not according to Joseph’s normal assumptions. The angel spoke in a dream, not when Joseph was awake and in control. So the first thing to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas is that the expectation of Jesus, according to Matthew, is outside all of our normal categories. Our business is not to explain this text. Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.

The second thing to notice in this story from Matthew is that the baby has no father; and in this family, like every family, it is a scandal when a baby has no father. And Joseph was at the edge of scandal, but that is not the point. The accent, rather, is that the baby is from the Holy Spirit. Now we may set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions and notice rather than this newness comes because God’s Spirit stirs among us. The Bible is largely a reflection on how God’s Spirit makes things new.

- It is God’s Spirit in Genesis 1 that creates a new world, a new heaven and a new earth. Continue reading

A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (Karl Barth)

Karl Barth, “John 1:1-5 (December 22, 1918)”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness….” We live from this truth. This light shiningshining light is like the air we breathe; we live from it without thinking about it. All that we know and have that is joyful, beautiful, and beloved comes from this shining light. But, like children who reject their parents, we can be ungrateful and forget the source from which we receive the best we have. Yet the source never ceases to flow, and we never cease to drink from it. We can indeed sit in a corner with the minuscule light of our own wisdom and righteousness, and act as if this little light were the only right one in the world, the one that should illuminate God and all other human beings. Even such minuscule lights would have no brightness at all, if it were not for that great shining light; without knowing it, we have kindled our little lights from that light….This shining light is given, and we live from it.

The light shines. We may hear this as a message of joy, good news, gospel for us and the whole world. We may proclaim it courageously and defiantly against all the darkness of our time; against the darkness in our own hearts, in our community, in our hospitals, mental institutions, and prisons; against the darkness in our conversations with one another and in the newspapers that we read; against all the darkness that darkens so many sickbeds and the beds of the dying; and against the pernicious darkness of our social conditions. Without hesitation we may proclaim against all darkness: the light shines. It remains true to itself; it remains what it is even in the deepest darkness, and that is why it shines. Because it is true, we may be courageous and defiant. There is no reason to doubt and despair, to give up, to think only somber and hopeless thoughts about ourselves, our community, and today’s world…..The light shines. This is what must be and remain most important, over against all that is otherwise true, all that otherwise occupies and fills our minds and hearts and causes us to be burdened with care. Continue reading

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (Rowan Williams)

Rowan Williams, “Advent: A University Sermon

Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God Rowan_Williams_1110959cthat is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the ‘desire of all nations'; in the cycle of the great Advent antiphons that begin with O Sapientia on 16 December, the phrase come twice, in the sixth and seventh texts: O Rex gentium, ‘O King of nations and their salvation’. Christmas is the moment of recognition, the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.

In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness. [...]

We long to know we are addressed. And this is where the ambiguity comes in: we fantasize about what such an address might be; we project on to the empty space before us the voices we need to hear. Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a haunting fiction – a story of extra-terrestrial visitation in which the ‘aliens’ turn out to have the ghostly shapes and faces of our lost childhood. The menacing stranger is, after all, only our forgotten innocence. It is a striking secular parody of the Christmas story, and one that points up the questionableness of our desire. What if our longing to hear a word spoken to us from beyond simply generates a loud echo of our need to be told we are all right, we have never fundamentally gone astray, we have never really left an undifferentiated Paradise? [...] Continue reading

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Guest Post: Zen Hess

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Banksy

Christmas has become a time where children eagerly anticipate the day of gift giving.  Maybe better, they eagerly anticipate gift receiving.  It becomes quite ingrained in a young child’s memory that there is one day in the year where there will be a whole lot of presents and all they had to do was not burp or fart at the dinner table.

I recall hardly sleeping many Christmas Eve nights.  It seemed like I could hardly keep my eyes closed.   Unlike some, I believed in Santa for many of my childhood years.  My memories are steeped with nights of worthless sleep as I peered out my western window, seeing a tower’s light flashing in the distance.  Every year I convinced myself that that light was Santa’s sleigh coming to town.  I just knew it was getting closer every minute.  Then, sleep would wash over my youthful exuberance, like wave of unconsciousness from which I would wake to the noise of Christmas wreaths banging against my window – certain that it was Santa upon my roof.  I would tip-toe to my sister’s room.  “Did you hear that?” I would ask.  “He’s here! He’s on the roof!”  Together, arm in arm, as quietly as we could, we would creep down the steps and peek around the corner of our stairwell wall.  There would be crumbs from the cookies we had left, or perhaps a half chewed carrot from the year we tried to help Santa become healthier, and presents were scattered about the family room.

As I grew up, I became aware of the falsity of the American Christmas story; though my ma still puts “From: Santa” on some of the presents that she wraps for us.  Maybe it’s her way of telling us not to give up on something so magnificent as a man who would share so abundantly to all the world.

In reading this week’s Scriptures, I found it hard not to feel the milieu of expectation, perhaps excitement at the coming of the Lord, such as that I had for the coming of Santa.  Appropriate for the first readings in the church’s season of Advent.  Continue reading

A Palm Sunday Sermon by Fleming Routledge, “The New World Order”

I have been reading a beautiful and challenging collection of sermons by Fleming Routledge, The Undoing of Death. Here is an excerpt from her 1991 Palm Sunday sermon titled “The New World Order.”Image

Of all the days in the Christian year, this is certainly the most disconcerting. Even the most seasoned churchgoers tend to forget, each year, exactly what we are in for when we come to church for this occasion. We start out in gala mood; Palm Sunday has always been a crowd-pleaser. The festivity of the triumphal procession, the stirring music, the palm branches, the repeated hosannas all suggest a general air of celebration. It comes as a shock to us, year after year, to find ourselves abruptly plunged into the solemn, overwhelmingly long dramatic reading of the Passion narrative. It’s a tough Sunday. Its begins in triumph and ends in catastrophe. We come in prepared to part, and we leave as if we were going to a funeral. We come in joyful and we go out stricken. All in all, it is a most perplexing day – and for those who are unprepared, it can be downright threatening.

It would be tempting, on this day, to follow good American practice and tone down the depressing parts – “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Many American congregations have attempted this. Were it not for the ancient liturgical wisdom given to the church, it would be perfectly possible to go to Sunday services two weekends in a row – Palm Sunday and Easter Day – without ever having to face the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was abandoned, condemned, and put to death as a common criminal on the Friday between. Our historic liturgy, however, guards against this fatal misunderstanding. [...] In this way, the church announces for all the hear that the Crucifixion of Jesus is the main event. There is no passage from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday. [...]

This week, the church of Jesus Christ gathers around the heart, the center, the guts of its claim to know the truth. Continue reading