Category: Sermon Illustrations

After Charlottesville

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Photo credit: ABC News

Yesterday I preached on the story of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis 37. Arrogant Joseph with his multicolored coat, and his brothers who plotted to kill him when they saw him coming. This story resonates in light of the violence and hatred and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, just 110-miles north of where I live.

Joseph and his brothers illustrate the worst in our society today — division, hate, racism, and violence. Often, our first knee-jerk response to those with whom we disagree is to violent, vengeful thoughts. This Joseph story — with its division, hatred, and violence — is as old as humanity, and sadly often repeated.

Here’s the audio of my sermon yesterday. It’s only 18-minutes, but I think you’ll find it helpful. This is not about confederate monuments or free speech or political parties — its about violence, hatred, and vengefulness. These are never morally right, whether the cause is repugnant or righteous. Jesus has called his followers to respond in a totally different way from our society’s default to violence. Listen and tell me what you think. And pray for Charlottesville…and our nation.

Sermon: God is here and I didn’t know it!

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. It’s about Jacob and that famous ladder of his, but there’s much more to it than that. The format is a little different from my usual style, but each verse is so rich and significant, I decided to breakdown the text one or two verses at a time. I hope you find it helpful and that your Sunday worship is wonderful.

Genesis 28:10-19 NIV

10. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.
Okay, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind this brief verse. Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.

And why is that? you ask. Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers — even though they are twins – who are as different as night and day. When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.

But Jacob is not the first born, which galls him to no end later in life. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home. But Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real macho dude.

And, it gets worse. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies. (Did I say Esau is a bit dramatic?) So, anyway, Jacob says, “Okay, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.

Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by, oh, maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was. So Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.

But it gets even worse.

Isaac is really old and blind by now. So, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make Esau’s famous stew (apparently all the guys in this story know how to cook stew) and bring him some. Then, Isaac says, I’ll give you a blessing.

Rebekah, the mother, overhears this conversation. She wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, fills him in, and cooks a goat for him – as quickly as you can cook a goat.

She puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather dainty, hairless arms to fool Isaac. By the way, nobody ever accused families in the Bible of being perfect.

So, Jacob goes into Isaac’s room with his stew. Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long. Are you sure you are Esau?” To which Jacob replies, “Yes, father, I’m Esau!”

Isaac is skeptical, to say the least, and he tells Jacob to come closer so he can touch him and confirm he is indeed Esau. Jacob does so, and Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So he pronounces his blessing on Jacob.

Now not to excuse what Jacob and Rebekah are doing to deceive old, blind Isaac, but I’m sure Jacob rationalizes that the blessing of the firstborn is rightfully his because Esau sold it to him for a bowl of stew.

In the meantime, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)

Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.

Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Wow.

11. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

Okay, so back to our story. Jacob travels about a day’s journey and reaches “a certain place.” Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than it’s nighttime. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Debbie has been having neck problems, and we have tried every possible remedy. Finally, she saw a physical therapist, and is now getting regular neck massages from Gayle Wright. I’m sure you wanted to know that.

But, before she did that, we bought several different pillows. We’ve tried buckwheat pillows, down pillows, latex pillows, fiberfill pillows, and so on. We have a lot of pillows. But we finally found a memory foam pillow with a cooling gel top that she really liked. So we bought one. Then I bought one because I was jealous of her having the good pillow. I will not tell you how much they cost because I am embarrassed to tell you how much they cost. But they are really comfortable. Really.

But Jacob was apparently not as picky as Debbie and I are because he selects a nice firm rock for a pillow. No wonder he dreams strange things.

12. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get Jacob’s ladder and the song by the same name. But, of course those spoilsport biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway or ramp that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Like the Tower of Babel. So, instead of singing the spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder, it might more likely be Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven!

Not the same, I know, but that’s what they tell us. In any event, the stairway or ladder connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers (because that’s what angels are) are going up and down from heaven to earth and back. This idea of heaven meeting earth will be formalized in the Tabernacle and then permanently in the Temple. But this is our first glimpse of the heaven and earth connection.

But here’s the important part in verse 13:

13. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

In the ancient world, at the top of the ziggurat God was to be found. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so the biblical writer uses a familiar image of the stairway, and God is at the top looking down.

God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”

Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.

Let’s read the next verses to see what God promises to Jacob.

14. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

15. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

God promises Jacob five things.
I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. (v.13)
Your descendants will be numberless, ubiquitous, and a blessing to all peoples. (v. 14)
I am with you and will watch over you…(v. 15)
I will bring you back to this land…(v. 15)
I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob.

16. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.

Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too.

I visited my Dad from last Sunday to Wednesday. Dad is 97, or closer to 98, as he told a couple of folks in Douglas while I was there. He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed foot drop. Apparently his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission.

He flew into some dangerous situations in both Europe and Northern Africa,
and was the first plane to land in Algiers after it was liberated.

But when he developed foot drop, he couldn’t operate the plane’s controls, and came back to the US to recover. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor until the war was over.

But the day after he was sent for medical treatment, his group of C47s came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed.

Dad told me that story, and then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”

Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!

But Jacob also realizes that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense, God is here, not just was here. “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens:

17. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Jacob recognizes that he is in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.

And so Jacob names that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words, beth which means house, and el which means God. Bethel, the house of God.

And then he takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, erects it as an altar, pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.

Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time. –

Podcast: A Story We Might Like to Forget

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Last Sunday I preached on the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the family of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). We spend a great deal of time on the Isaac story — the promise of God to make Abraham the father of a great nation — but, we often overlook the Ishmael story. God also promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And, Ishmael as part of Abraham’s household is circumcised as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. In addition, Isaac and Ishmael never fight, and both attend the burial of their father Abraham. What does this Ishmael story say about our attitudes toward the descendants of Ishmael, the people of the Arab countries? Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Podcast: Old Fathers, Laughing Mothers

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On Father’s Day, June 18, 2017, I preached from Genesis 21:1-7, the story of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. Considering Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, his first Father’s Day must have been memorable! Here’s the audio of that sermon:

Podcast: Why the Ascension Matters

StGeorgeToledo - Ascension of the Lord - Fr. Theodore Jurewicz

Ascension Sunday too often is overlooked in our transition from Eastertide to Pentecost. But, the Ascension of Christ is a pivotal event that bookends the entire life and ministry of Jesus. Here’s the sermon from Acts 1:1-11 that I preached on Ascension Sunday, May 28, 2017, titled, “Why the Ascension Matters.” I hope you find it helpful.

Podcast: Pouring Out The Spirit on All People

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Sunday, June 4, 2017, was Pentecost Sunday! In our church we all wore something red, which is the liturgical color of that Sunday. And, of course, I preached from Acts 2:1-21, Luke’s account of the Day of Pentecost. Here’s the audio of that message:

Podcast: The Unknown God

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Last Sunday I preached from Acts 17:22-31, which is the story of Paul’s visit to Athens and his sermon at the Areopagus. In many ways, just as Paul faced a different world in Athens, we are living in a different world than the Church has ever encountered before. Paul adapted his approach and message to meet the Athenian philosophers and pundits where they were, but he effectively communicated the Gospel as well. Here’s the audio from last Sunday:

Podcast: Passing on a Legacy of Faith

For Mother’s Day, I preached from 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 on the subject, “Passing on a Legacy of Faith.” Just as the apostle Paul and Susanna Wesley both passed on a legacy of faith to others, we can do the same for those within our circles of influence, including our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Here’s the audio of last Sunday’s sermon —  

Sermon: God Present With Us

I have posted the podcast of this sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” If you prefer to read it, here’s the manuscript. The Twenty-third Psalm continues to be a rich source of inspiration and guidance, as fresh as it was when King David penned its words.

God Present With Us

Psalm 23 KJV

1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My Brief Career as a Shepherd

I’ve had three experiences in my lifetime of trying to herd animals from one place to another. The first was when I was about 10 years old and staying with my mother’s relatives in south Georgia. My grandfather owned a lot of land in south Georgia, and he did a variety of different things. He owned stands of pine trees from which he harvested the sap for turpentine. He had hogs and chickens, and a family garden, but the main thing he did was raise cattle. And he raised cattle that won several prizes. I remember seeing photographs of his prize-winning bulls on the wall in his office at the farm.

One afternoon on my visit, my cousin and I were supposed to go open the gate for the cows to move from one part of the pasture to another part. But, to do so they had to cross the sandy road that ran through his farm. That road is paved today, but when I was 10 it was unpaved sand and would develop what looked and felt like “washboard” type ruts. But despite the washboard effect, the folks who traveled on that road drove fast. I mean really fast!

You can see where this is going, can’t you? So, my cousin, Terry, and I open the gate, and the cows are doing what cows do — walking slowly in single file from the pasture, across the road, to the other pasture. All this is going pretty well, until we hear the rumble of a car tearing down the sandy road. So, we did what all 10 year old boys do — we panicked and started flapping our arms and shouting at the cows and running behind them to move them off the road.

Cows, being the skittish creatures they are, responded to two wild-eyed 10 year old boys flapping their arms and shouting by also panicking. Now when cows panic, they break ranks and run every which way. And, that’s exactly what they did. Mostly they ran into the woods. So now we had a big problem. How do you get cows to come out of the woods into which they have just fled?

After calling the cows, which we had no idea how to do, and the cows had no idea what we were doing, we gave up. Slowly we made our way to the house to tell my uncle that the cows were in the woods. I had visions of him rounding up all the farm hands, cranking up all the tractors, and putting a full-scale cow rescue plan into effect.

So, sheepishly we explained what happened. My uncle just looked at us like we were the most worthless two city boys he had ever seen. Which we were. On the farm at least. Then he said, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the cows to come back home.” Who knew cows would come back of their own accord? And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.

My other two experiences of herding involved goats and chickens, and those went a little better, although I am glad that there is no video of my doing either one of those chores.

A Beautiful Poem from an Amazing Life

All of that brings us to our text for today, the Twenty-third Psalm. Psalm 23 undoubtedly is the most familiar and most beloved psalm among all 150 psalms. That’s why I chose the King James’ Version today. We love this psalm because it is beautiful poetry in its own right. But, it is also a reassuring psalm, which is why it is often read at funerals.

This wonderful work is attributed to King David. Of course you remember that David himself had been a shepherd boy. Now a grown man, and responsible for the united nations of both Israel and Judah, David has faced a lot of difficulty throughout his life.

We don’t know at what point in David’s life this psalm was written. It might have been when David had been anointed king while the increasingly unstable Saul was still king. Saul had a love-hate relationship with David. Saul’s jealousy of David, and Saul’s declining mental state set the stage for Saul to attempt to kill David on more than one occasion.

But, after Saul passes off the scene, David continues to have his own set of problems. His adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and his murder of her husband, Uriah, mark the lowest point in David’s life. But God brings David through this valley and back into faithful relationship with God.

Maybe David writes this poem when his own son Absalom is trying to overthrow him. David’s forces are victorious in defeating Absalom’s forces, but Absalom is killed in the battle, and David mourns for this lost son.

We don’t know when David wrote this psalm, but I think it was later in his life. I believe that David is reflecting on his life, and the extraordinary events that brought him from being a shepherd boy, to being the greatest king the Jewish people had ever, or would ever, know.

God as the Shepherd-King

David begins this poem simply and directly:

“The Lord is my shepherd….”

The “Lord” is the name for God that Jews in the Old Testament period used instead of the unspeakable name of God, YHWH. “Lord” is also an acknowledgement of one who is superior and in charge, one to whom everyone one else bows down. Also, in the ancient world, kings were often also referred to as “shepherd” of their people because the king’s responsibility was to protect and provide for his subjects. All of those ideas are present in David’s simple, yet profound confession, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

I grew up in church, and the only translation available to us then was the King James’ Version. So, when I memorized scripture, I memorized the King James’ Version of whatever passage we were working on. That was true of this psalm as well. But, sometimes when you’re a kid, you get things mixed up. So, when I memorized, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” I thought that meant that David didn’t want God to be his shepherd. Which I thought was puzzling, but there it was. I’m not sure at what point that got cleared up for me, but I eventually understood that David meant, “I don’t want (lack) for anything.”

The idea that with God as his shepherd David had all he needed is one of the central themes of this psalm. But, David doesn’t leave that idea without explanation.

“He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

With these examples, David is telling us what exactly God does for him. The good shepherd finds good food, calm water, and safe paths for his sheep. That’s everything a sheep needs — food, water, and safety. In addition, the shepherd revives the tired sheep, perhaps through the comforting provision of his presence.

God’s Presence and Provision

However, David isn’t finished describing this good shepherd yet. David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

David acknowledges that despite the shepherd’s provision of food, water, and safety, there are times of difficulty and danger — “the valley of the shadow of death.” In this image, one can see the herd as it makes its way through a narrow canyon with the valley walls looming on either side. Predators, both animal and human, lurked in the caves and behind rocks in that kind of terrain. Sheep were easy prey and David knew well that the shepherd had to protect his sheep. David had told King Saul that when a lion or bear tried to take one of his sheep, David had fought the lion or bear and killed it. David knew the dangers present in the valley of the shadow of death.

The comforting presence of the shepherd’s rod and staff give reassurance to the sheep. The rod was used to guide the sheep; and, the staff, with its crooked head, was used to rescue sheep in difficulty. David knew that God both guided and rescued his people because David had been on the receiving end of God’s direction and compassion himself.

In verse 5, the scene shifts from the outdoor pasture setting to a banquet scene. David says, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Here God has prepared a banquet, and it is an extravagant and luxurious event. A properly set table, and the anointing of the guests’ heads with oil, along with the abundance of food and drink were all hallmarks of an elaborate feast — a feast fit for a king.

The fact that this extravagant, luxurious feast takes place when David is surrounded by his enemies is further assurance of God’s protection and provision. This feast is the opposite of what a king surrounded by enemies would normally do. The fact that God sets this feast for David reminds David that God not only provides more than he needs, but that God protects David as well.

The Surprising Finish

With all this talk of enemies, the valley of the shadow of death, and evil, David obviously thinks someone is out to get him. But, here the psalm finishes with a wonderful surprise.

While David thought that malevolent forces were out to kill him, he discovers God’s goodness and mercy is really pursuing him. Enemies may be following David, but so is God. And God is pursuing David with more goodness and mercy than David can ever imagine. Have you ever bought something in a store, and then walked out leaving your purchase behind, only to hear behind you the clerk running to catch up to you? That’s the idea here, I think. God pursues us with goodness and mercy. All we have to do is stop and turn around to receive it.

But, that’s not all. Not only is God pursuing us with goodness and mercy, there’s a new place for us to live, too. Remember, this is the King David who built himself a fine palace. A really nice palace apparently. For some time, scholars had speculated that David might have been more legend than fact. The thinking was that David was really a minor warlord, and Jerusalem a sleepy village when he was king.

However, in 2006, Eliat Mazar, an Israeli archaeologist, published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review with the title, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” We don’t have time for a full explanation, but the gist of it is that Mazar expanded on the work of previous archaeologists, and using the Bible as a source, unearthed a massive building site situated exactly where the Bible locates the palace of King David.

So, my point is that David had a huge, and probably luxurious palace in which to live. But, where does David want to live forever? Not in his palace, but in the “house of the Lord.” Remember, David built his palace before the permanent Temple gets built by his son Solomon. So, David is saying “I had rather live in the Tent of the Lord than in my own palace.” Why? Because God was thought to be present in the Tabernacle.

But Wait There’s More

Have you seen those TV ads which offer to sell you a set of Ginsu knives for the low, low price of whatever? Just as you are about to decide you don’t need any Ginsu knives, the narrator excitedly tells you, “But wait, there’s more!”

And that’s what happens with our story of the Twenty-third Psalm. Because there is more. In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says,

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

Then, he continues in verse 14 —

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Of course, Jesus knew the story of David and he knew the Twenty-third Psalm. And it is no accident or coincidence that Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.

For us this means that the same God who was present to protect and provide for King David, is present with us today. And just like David, the Good Shepherd is present in the valley and on the mountain top; in the midst of danger and in times of joy.

The story of the Bible is God present with God’s people. The Twenty-third Psalm reminds us that our Shepherd-King, Jesus, protects, provides, and pursues us with his goodness and mercy, and we will indeed dwell in his presence forever. Amen.

 

Podcast: God Present With Us

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Here’s the podcast of the sermon I preached last Sunday from Psalm 23, titled “God Present With Us.” The Twenty-third Psalm perhaps is the most well-known and beloved Psalm, and its message remains one of God’s protection and provision. Here’s the audio —