Saturday, August 29, 2015

Seeing Greater Things

Seeing Greater Things                              8/30/15

Genesis 28:10-21, John 1:43-51

Seeing Greater Things:  This is a phrase Jesus uses with one of his disciples, after they are impressed by something Jesus considers a smaller detail.    Jesus tells Nathanael, ‘you believe because I saw you under a fig tree, you’ll see greater things than that!”.

Today, we lift up two very different people from the Bible.  The first is one of the famous patriarchs, who had a reputation for guile and deceit.  His name was Jacob, later to be called Israel.  The second man is, to use Jesus’ terminology, “a true Israelite in who is no guile”.  He is the disciple Nathanael.  Both of these men, upon encountering the Lord, are transformed, and further their dedication and devotion because of their encounters with the Living God.

After we look at these stories, we’ll connect our 2015 stories to the same Lord, relying on the same promise, and same invitation.

First, let us travel back some thirty five hundred years to the life of Jacob.  Despite the time difference, the same drama and familiar dysfunction exists that might exist in our favorite reality show today, or in our household, or a household with whom we are familiar.

Jacob is on his way to Haran, the land of his Uncle Laban.  But this is not a vacation, nor by a desire for a family reunion.  It is a journey spurred by competition, conflict, dysfunction, murderous thoughts and deceit, along with the family blessing to go…away.

It is a story of running away, and along the way, encountering a dream and the Lord’s promise, along with transformation.

It is a story about the unexpected places you might meet God. 

Jacob doesn’t meet God in a temple.  He doesn’t meet God after much soul searching and desire for prayer.  He meets God through a dream, while on the run.

Walter Brueggemann, in his Intepretation Commentary on Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982), writes:

          On the one hand we may be tempted to imagine that this is a primitive religious report that has no pertinence to modern reality, for we have ‘outgrown’ such matters.  Or on the other hand, we may wish to explain it psychologically and deny its objective reality.  But neither of these will do.  The narrative shatters our presuppositions.  It insists the world is a place of such meetings” (with God).         242

Jacob is running from his brother Esau, who had vowed to murder him after Jacob steals the family blessing.  He did this by dressing up as Esau before his blind and dying father, even to the point, of putting game scent on him so that Isaac might smell the fields.  Jacob’s mother, upon hearing that her one son was going to murder her other son, comes up with a scheme herself, to get Jacob out of town.  Everyone decides that life might be easier if Jacob isn’t around.

And so Jacob is cast off.  He is sent out into this big world, all alone.  He must travel without caravan to a land several hundred miles away.  And during that first night, he stops to rest.  Alone.  Scared.  Anxious.  Uncertain.  He places his head upon a stone and falls asleep.


Jacob starts to dream.  In his dream, he meets God.

Brueggemann comments;

“The meeting happens in a dream.  The wakeful world of Jacob was a world of fear, terror, loneliness (and, we may imagine, unresolved guilt).  Those were parameters of his existence.  The dream permits the entry of an alternative into his life.  The dream is not a morbid review of a shameful past.  It is rather the presentation of an alternative future with God…The vision shatters the presumed world of Jacob.  He had assumed he traveled alone with his only purpose being survival.    (243)

The dream is of angels traveling up and down between heaven and earth.  The Lord stands on top of the staircase these messengers use.  The LORD speaks in this dream, and his words become a promise to Jacob.  This promise is of land, and heritage, and blessing and the LORD’s presence and care.  The LORD even says that he will not leave Jacob until ‘I have done what I have promised you.’

Jacob awakes.  He responds to this dream with the words:  Surely the LORD was in this place, and I was not aware of it.  Afraid, Jacob exclaims, “How awesome is this place:  this is the house of God!”

Jacob places the stone as a tribute and remembrance to his encounter with God.  He names the place, Bethel, the House of God.  Jacob then declares his allegiance to the Lord.  The Lord will be my God, and this stone will be God’s house, and I will give a tenth of all that is given me to preserve this house.

Unfortunately, Jacob’s response to the Lord’s promise is conditional.  He will do these things, “IF”.  If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking…If God will give me food to eat and clothes to wear….if I return safely to my father’s house…then

Breuggemann makes a fascinating comparison between Jacob’s demands, and the Lord’s promises we find in Psalm 23.

Jacob:  If God will be with me:
Psalm 23: I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.  (vs4)

Jacob:  If God will watch over me on this journey:
Psalm 23:  He makes me life down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he guides me in paths of righteousness for his names sake. (vss 2-3)

Jacob:  If God will give me bread to eat
Psalm 23:  He prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies  (vs 5)

Jacob:  If I return safely to my Father’s House:
Psalm 23:  I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.  (vs 6)

The LORD fulfills his promise.  God descends into a scary, lonely world and transforms it with his promise.

A millennium and a half later, at just the right time, God sends his son Jesus Christ into this hurting, scary, lonely world, a bright light upon a dark night.  God’s promise of Jesus transforms.  Jesus chooses twelve to start the message of good news for all humankind.

Philip knows the blessing of following.  Jesus came up to him and said ‘follow me’.  And Phillip did!  He invited his friend to know the Messiah had come!  The one we’ve been waiting for is here!  When Nathanael, a devout man himself, questions Philip, his new found confidence invites Nathanael:  Come and see!

Nathanael is truly a man without guile.  Upon hearing the Messiah comes from Nazareth, Nathanael’s straightforward answer is:  Can anything good come from there?  When Jesus declares to those around him that Nathanael is a true Israelite, a man without guile, Nathanael doesn’t argue:  How do you know me?, he questions the Lord.

Before meeting Jesus, Nathanael had been alone, resting from the heat of the day under the shade of a fig tree.  It apparently was his personal hideout spot, not known to his friends.  To this fig tree Nathanael would go, to restore his spirit with quiet and meditation upon the Scripture.  Perhaps that day he was reading the story of Jacob’s travels to Haran interrupted by his dream.

When Nathanael asks Jesus, how do you know me?, Jesus references Nathanael’s secret hideout.  I saw you.  I saw you when you thought no one was watching.  I knew your thoughts and your dreams, what you run from, and what you run after!  I knew you.  I saw you.

This information from the Christ is enough for Nathanael to call himself a believer.  You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!

Jesus response seems to be:  Really, that’s all it took?  You believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree?  Nathanael, you’ll see greater things than these.  I am the stairway, by which the messengers travel to heaven and back.  Those angels you read of in Jacob’s dream…they traveled by me.

And so we have a man of guile on the run, who is transformed by a dream, and a good man running after God, who is transformed by the story of the dream.  Both were invited to see great things, because they saw the Lord.  The Lord is great, and greatly to be praised.

In our day, we are invited to see all types of things, and to participate in all types of endeavors.  But the things that are the greatest, and the endeavors that are the most important are those which allow us to see:  to see the greatness of God, to behold the majesty of the Lord, to envision the beauty of the Lord.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Be Strong in the Lord

Be Strong in the Lord                                     8/2/15

Ephesians 6:10-20, Mark 10:43-45

What does it mean to be strong?

Websters has two very different definitions.  The first is image that most of us think:

Having the power to move heavy weights or other physically demanding tasks.

Definition 2 is not as well known, but very helpful:

Able to withstand great force or pressure.

Not all of us will achieve the first definition.  If being able to hold onto the bars of a crib when you are trying to change his diaper is a sign of strength, my two year old son might already be physically stronger than I am.

As Christians, the 2nd definition is a calling we all should embrace.  Part of the Christian Life is our ability to fulfill this definition by God’s help:   Able to withstand great force or pressure.

Every message from society beckons us to look within for the ability to withstand force or pressure. Look to yourself.  Look inside you.  Conjure up the courage. The Scripture calls us to a different direction.  We are to look up to God and look outside our selves for the resources to be strong. 

How are you made strong?  The biblical answer in Ephesians is by putting on the full armor of God.  The imagery is one of a soldier.  Yet this soldier is not one who wages war against other people.  It is not a human battle, but a spiritual one.  Paul writes that our struggle, our ability to withstand great force or pressure, is not against flesh and blood, but against powers that are larger than any person.   Our enemies as Christians are not people, but the devil’s schemes, rulers and authorities, powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil.  It is against these entities that we should put on armor.

Paul says we put on this armor so you can stand your ground, and when all is finally  said and done, to stand.  Did you hear how similar Webster’s definition is to Paul?  “Able to withstand great force or pressure”.

Paul, with the Roman Empire and their efficient military training in his mind, instructs us as to the armor we should put on:

*the belt of truth

            *Breastplate of righteousness


            *Feet fitted with readiness that accompanies the gospel of peace


            *Shield of faith

            *Helmet of salvation

*sword of the spirit (the word of God)

In addition to the sword of the Spirit, the second weapon Paul identifies is prayer.  We often consider prayer defensively.  Something happens to us, and we pray.  This isn’t wrong, mind you, but prayer should also be offense oriented.  Paul encourages us to pray:

            *in the spirit

*on all occasions

*with all kinds of prayers and requests

*for all the saints:   Always keep on praying for all the saints.  It is almost as if the Christian life could simply be fulfilling that work!

If the soldier image is distracting to you, take away the armor imagery, and what do you have left?

Truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, the word of God, prayer

Whether we call these armor, or resources, or tools, or gifts:  we can all agree to their goodness.  These are the things that overcome the world.  These are the things that outlast the devil, and call out the forces that draw away from God.  Scripture says that even the demons believe in God.  Our job is to proclaim the majesty of God.  All truth is God’s truth.  We live right when we live God’s way.  Readiness is our openness to being led by the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel which has made us at peace with God should not put us to sleep, but rather, should make us strong for our work.  We are ready to go where God wants us to go and do what God wants us to do.  To have faith, to find salvation, to encounter the Word of God, to pray:  these are good things that bring life to the soul, to our neighbor, and borough and nation and all peoples of the world.

What does it mean to be strong?  It means to be people of truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, the Word of God and prayer.  These are our weights which, when lifted make us strong.  These expression are the life from God that allows us to withstand the pressure and great forces that stand against God.

This morning, I want to express how proud I am of you as we have finished up two busy weeks of programs: all wonderfully successful in bringing strength to this community, the Stockton community and neighbors from surrounding places.  You strength in the Lord was on display through Vacation Bible School, the Delaware Valley Summer Institute and Summer Art Camp.   VBS called upon a good number of volunteers to work together.  The Volunteer team also consisted of a large number of graduates from VBS.  There is certainly a good future in the program.  Summer Art Camp was organized by the Johnson family, with help this year from the two Stockton community teenagers who once came to VBS, and the Good Life afterschool program, and then have been helpers at VBS, Good Life and now Art Camp.  It was a delightful time, with the week culminating in over 75 people in our Main Hall to celebrate the young artists and their work.  Cheering on the young to nurture their creativity:  How strong is that?  Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.

These events expressed so much goodness in this urgent battle against forces that seek to bring harm, evil and hurt into the this world.  God’s vision for humanity is far different.  These programs brought life, goodness, community, togetherness, relationships with old friends and new, a closeness to neighbors, a welcome to people who do not worship here to consider their humanity in light of how God created us to be.  What a wonderful model of strength you have been these past two weeks.

These past two weeks have lived out the spirit of today’s Gospel passage, where strength is displayed in gentleness.  The world looks at strength simply as power to be displayed, where God invites strength of a different kind.  Jesus welcomed the children, and blessed them, even though there were cries that he not waste his time on the children.  Surely there were better ways to get the message out.  To Jesus, the best way was to take a knee, and place his hand on the head of a child, and bless them.   You have shown the gentle strength of Jesus Christ these past two weeks.  Thank you.

Briefly, I’d also like to highlight the teaching of Joel Estes, PhD Candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary,and leader of the 6th annual DVSI, with his series of lectures entitled “Disability, Theology and the Church”.  Joel gave us a lot of spiritual nutrients for thought.  He invited us to be strong in the Lord, by our presence and support of those whose disabilities are more tangible.  All people can give glory to God.  Joel invited us to consider a spectrum of being able and disabled.  Those with the most severe of physical challenges still display the glory of God, and offer strength and ability to the community of faith.  Their exclusion weakens us, but their inclusion strengthens us.  People with physical, social or mental challenges remind us that all of us need the Lord.  All of us depend on God.  All human life will have varying degrees of challenge, even if everything looks strong from an outward perspective.  In short, we need each other to be strong in the Lord.  Will we remember our readiness that accompanies the gospel of peace?

Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, reminds us that Jesus Christ’s grace is sufficient for our living, that the Lord’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  We are called to have a faith that withstands great force or pressure.  We are called to stand firm in the Lord and in his mighty power.

You too can bring the Lord’s strength into this worshipping community.  Someone asked me this week the importance of writing letters, of making phone calls and having meaningful conversations before or after worship.  Amen (May it be so).  As Paul writes:  Do good to all people, but especially to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10) In caring for each other, we stand firm in the Lord and in his mighty power.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Notes for Deeply Rooted

Dear Friends,

The week before this sermon threw me for a few loops:  These are the notes from the August 2nd worship:  To read Matthew 13, parable of the sower, alongside Psalm 1 and Matthew 6 is the real blessing. 

Deeply Rooted                                          8/2/15

Psalm 1, Matthew 6:28-34

What is the most beautiful or meaningful thing that you have grown?

My experience with growing seeds inside during the winter has taught me a few lessons:
Under the lights, you do not want seeds to grow too quickly, or they are stringy and don’t develop roots.

Well watered with balanced sunlight, amazing growth happens

When a plant becomes all that it is supposed to be, it is marvelous to behold.

Abundance is there is you have the eyes to see it (my Father with Latin names of plants, plants teach me about life)

In every plant, there is an amazing abundance of life.  (even weeds, down by the river, dandelions)


Today is the conclusion of our summer series:  Praising the Lord with symbols:


How are  plants symbols:

          the curse upon Adam in the garden:

cursed is the ground because of Adam, through painful toil you will eat of it…It will produce thorns and thistles for you…by the sweat of your brow

(we can’t control the world)


The olive branch in the Ark Story…brought back to Noah by the Dove.   (there is life beyond the immediate floods before us)


Palms:  instruments of praise, prepared a walkway for the King


The lilies of the field:  God’s gift of life around us

Psalm 1:

Blessed:  not walking in wickedness, but delighting in the Law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night.

She or he is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.  Whatever she or he does prospers.


Great self-analysis in this verse.  Does this verse describe you?  Why or why not?


Matthew 6:

Last week:  worry cannot add to life.  Implied that it can take away.

Today:  God sowing the lilies of the field, more beautiful that what we clothe ourselves.

Seek first the kingdom of God.


Close the sermon with a reading of the Parable of the Sower:

Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers                                                                                             7.26/15

6th sermon in the series Praise the Lord with Symbols

Genesis 2:19-20, Matthew 6:25-27


Four beginning comments: 

First, Al Curving, a member of the Son Rise church in Flemington, is here today to represent the local chapter of the Gideon’s.  He will be presenting the second half of the sermon today.  He has come to us by way of Walt Errico, a long time Stockton resident and Gideon.  Walt and I have been corresponding for quite some time, and their group sends us yearly postcards that they pray for us. Walt’s children and I were in high school together, and his son is a pastor in Kentucky.  Today’s lesson is on Animals, and how they ultimately perform the will of God.  Our primary job as Christians and as a congregation is to do God’s will by spreading the gospel message.  That the Gideon’s have put Bible’s throughout the world is one diligent example of spreading the word.

Second, because Al is speaking, I have shortened my sermon.

Third, because I have shortened my sermon, I’ve prepared some homework for you. 

Fourth, you’re welcome.

Oh wait, 3A was the implied “Thank You” I know all of you were thinking after I shared number 3.
This summer, we have been talking about symbols in the church and how they give their praise to the Lord.  We’ve talked about bread and wine speaking to the presence of Jesus Christ, the sanctuary, a space where we encounter the Omnipresent God, we talked about the letters on our paramounts and communion ware, letters that represent the Name of Jesus Christ, we talked about the two flags that are in this space, and last week, we talked about the seal of our denomination, reminding us that we represent the King of kings as his ambassadors.  Today, we talk about animals.

The homework is really not work, it is pleasure.  It is a list of animals whose characteristics or behavior is referenced by God the Creator, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit through the biblical authors.  It isn’t an exhaustive list of animals mentioned in the Bible, just the ones that point to something greater than themselves.  It is a list of animals who symbolize something greater.   If you remember the word symbol means a physical token that speaks to an invisible reality.

In Genesis, we have the man naming the animals, as commanded by God.  It could be possible that Adam just blurted out the first syllables that came to his mind, without thought or reason.  But I have always imagined this passage is a very methodical, serious work by the man.  Adam observed the creatures, looking at patterns, behavior throughout different seasons and settings.  He compared and contrasted and recorded his data.  When he was all done, he was ready to name them.  Of course, we will have to wait for the movie version in heaven to find out exactly how it happened.  But what is really interesting, is that “God brought them to the man to see what he would name them”.  What a delightful verse about the Lord!  He was interested to see the man’s work.  He gave freedom and a job, and then waited with expectation about the good work that would occur.  It is a reminder to us, that our work can be very valuable,
Jesus referenced the birds.  Their existence continually speaks to God’s care.  They do not plant their food, they wait for what comes to them, they do not have barns or refrigerators or grocery stores.  They wait upon God for their food.  They have to work for it, and they show great care for their young.  But ultimately, they cannot do more than their capacity.  They have to trust.  Jesus says that we cannot add life to ourselves by worrying.  We too have to trust.

In Scripture, Jesus is called both Lion and Lamb.  The Lion represents royalty, power and strength.  The Lamb was the key animal in the sacrificial system of the Jewish Law.  Jesus is the King.  He was also the sacrifice to redeem our sins.  And thus, in Revelation’s vision of Heaven, he remains the Lion and the Lamb. 

Last week, I mentioned that our job is to be ambassadors of the King of Kings.  The creation joins in praise to God.  We too, though given freedom, can only find our freedom, and true purpose of what it means to be human, when we follow the Lord.  His command is to go and preach the good news throughout the earth.  We have these wonderful symbols from creation that join us in our work.  I invite Al to come forward now to share how this group with a familiar name has done its work, both here and throughout the world.  Thank you Al.

Animals and Their Lessons:

Matching Human Experience with Biblical Witness


Of Creatures Large and Small:

Proverbs 30:24-31:  animals and their attributes


Creature                     Biblical Verse                                     Symbol/Lesson


Ant                              Proverbs 6:6-8                                  diligence


Bear                             II Samuel 17:8                                  defender of young


Beast                           Rev. 4:6-9                                           performing God’s will


Bee                              Exodus 23:28                                      driving away enemies


Behemoth                    Job 40:15-24                                       strength, security

(hippo or elephant?)


Camel                          Matthew 19:24                                    travel through adversity


Chicken                       Matthew 23:37                                    caring concern


Deer                            Ps 42:1, Isaiah 35:6, Habakkuk 3:19  God as our strength


Dogs                            Matthew 15:26-27                              used as an example of faith


Donkey                       Zechariah 9:9                                      Royal procession


Dove                           Genesis 8:8-12, Matthew 10:16          innocence


Fish                             early Christian symbol                        part of Jesus miracles


Fly                               Exodus 8:20-32                                   judgment


Fox                              Luke 13:32                                          craftiness


Locust                         Joel 2                                                   armies, devestation


Horse                           Psalm 147:10                                       strength


Hyena                          Isaiah 13:22                                         desolation


Lamb                           John 1:29                                             name for Jesus, sacrifice

Lion                             Revelation 5:5                                     strength, name for Jesus


Moth                           Job 4:19, Matt. 6:19                            fragility of life


Ox                               Luke 13:15                                          rest for workers


Owl                             Psalm 102:6                                         presence


Pig                               Matthew 7:7, 2 Peter 2:22                  careless trampling


Ravens                        I Kings 17:4, Job 38:41                       fed and helping feed


Scorpion                      Luke 11:12                                          example used by Jesus


Sheep                          Psalm 23, John 10                               believers, God as Shepherd


Snake                          Number 21, Isaiah 11;8                       part of miracle stories, future

                                                                                                     in God’s kingdom, shrewd

Serpent                        II Corinthians 11:3                              cunning


Sparrow                       Psalm 84:3, Matthew 10:29                God’s care


Wolf                            Matthew 7:15, Isaiah 65:25                ravenous, future in kingdom



Douglas, J.D. and Merrill Tenney, The New International Dictionary of the Bible, Zondervan, 1987. Animals and Birds entry was instrumental in making this list. 

This list is not the entire list of animals mentioned in the Bible:  not even close.  It is a list of animals whose behavior or characteristics are referenced by God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit through biblical authors to teach about what is true and real. 

This list does not include fish, which are referenced generically throughout Scripture.  

Most animals on this list are mentioned more than once, but I included the Scripture that might be familiar or is a good starting point for the image.  

Many animals are referenced in Scripture in multiple ways:  and sometimes in very different ways (example, Jesus is named the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the devil roams like a lion)