If At First

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered the wonder of what it means to be in a position to be called by the Lord.  We heard the stories of God’s calling the boy Samuel and the annunciation to Mary and thought about how or when we might be able to respond to God’s call on our own lives.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below:

It wasn’t a joyous Christmas for everyone when Mikayla brought home her final report card from the first half of the third grade. Although she had been a wonderful student in previous years, every single subject showed a marked decline. Worse than that, at least for her mother, was the fact that Mikayla’s teacher indicated that Mikayla’s attitude had become really negative. The teacher said, “It’s almost as if she doesn’t care about school.”

Well, as you might imagine, there was a pretty serious conversation at dinner that evening. Mikayla’s mother was appalled by her daughter’s blatant disregard for her concerns. Finally, the child blurted out, “Look, it’s just too hard! Multiplication? Sentence structure? I hate that stuff. I’m just going to quit school.” At this point, Dad tried to take the long view, and asked about her future. Mikayla’s face brightened immediately, and said, “Oh, there’s nothing to worry about there. I have it all figured out. I don’t need to finish school or go to college. When I grow up, I’ll be a Kindergarten teacher. That stuff is easy! I understand all that.”

How frustrating is it when you find yourself in a situation where you are not able to understand what’s going on? Maybe it’s when you walk into a room and everyone is laughing… and you’re not sure why… You’re given an assignment at work or at school, and you just can’t figure out what is expected… You know what it’s like to encounter a situation in which you know that something should make sense, but you have absolutely no idea how to make it comprehensible.

We want the world to make sense, to have order, and to be predictable. We want to know what to expect, and when, and why. And yet all too often, it’s not that way. Especially, it seems, when God is involved.

Eli and Samuel, unknown illustrator.

Each of our scripture readings this morning presents us with a biblical character who simply cannot get a grip on what God is up to in their lives or in their world. In the first reading, we encounter young Samuel, who believes that the most important thing in his life at this point is to help Eli get through his days and nights in service to the Lord at the temple. Samuel respected the old man and he probably felt sorry for the ways that Eli’s sons had turned out. And Samuel probably wasn’t sure exactly why all the other kids lived at home with their parents, and he was here in the Temple, but he was making the best of it.

As you know, he heard a voice, repeatedly, and is finally able to ascertain that the voice belongs, not to the ancient priest, but to the God that they both serve.

Luke tells the story of a teenaged girl named Mary who is, by all accounts, simply minding her own business and planning a wedding. There’s a lot to do, and I’m sure that tensions were high. All of a sudden, her reverie is interrupted by the appearance of an angel who tells her something that she simply knows to be flat-out impossible.

There is not a person in this room who hasn’t asked each of these questions before: “Is that really you, God?” and “How can this be?”

You know what it’s like to ask these questions. How do you respond when you are faced with a situation that is puzzling, or confusing, or heart-breaking? It would seem to me that we could learn a thing or two from the models we have encountered in scripture this morning.

Samuel might tell us that it’s ok to slow down when you are confronting a perplexing situation. “Take some time,” he would say. “Get your bearings and try to discern what is really happening, not merely what is apparently going on.” He would know, since as you heard he didn’t get things right on his first, second or even third try.

Samuel’s willingness to restart, and his acknowledgement that his perception might not be ultimately accurate allowed him to embrace the new thing that God was going to begin in his life and in the experience of his people.

Our sister Mary would add that it’s ok to ask for help. When Gabriel started spouting all of this nonsense about her being pregnant she listened politely, but then she reminded him of the facts of her own life. And then she simply asked a question: “How can this be? I hear your words, but it simply seems unbelievable to me. Can you say more about this, please?” And in response to that, the messenger from God does, in fact, elaborate. He says that the Holy Spirit will “cover” her. The word for “cover” that is used there is the same word that the Greek Old Testament translators used to describe what was happening in the very beginning – when back in Genesis 1, the Spirit of God was “hovering” or “moving over” the water.

Mary’s willingness to ask for support and encouragement brought her to a place where she was able to see herself as a part of God’s creative movement in and through the world. She came to see that this thing was not happening to her, but rather in or through her.

Annunciation, Matthias Stom (c. 1600 – 1652)

In both instances, we see that slowing down, seeking alternative understandings, and asking for help leads God’s people to a deeper self-awareness and greater self-understanding. As young as they were, Samuel and Mary were each in a position (guided, I will note, by a mentor of one kind or another) to step outside of their own hurt, pain, confusion, or bewilderment and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of the roles that were being offered to them in the Divine economy. And in the security of that mentorship, the assurance of God’s presence, and with the gift of faith, both of these young people were able to redefine themselves, first and foremost, as “servants” of the Lord.

Mary, in fact, goes even further, referring to herself as a doulé of the Lord – a “slave”. Singer-songwriter Michael Card notes this in his volume on Luke, saying,

Her final response to the angel is conclusive proof. Essentially she responds, “Look, the slave of the Master.” Of all that she does not know, one thing seems perfectly clear to her. It is a perspective that will help her navigate the deep waters into which the small vessel of her life is about to go. It will be the source of her disturbingly clear obedience… She is surrendering her rights, her hopes and dreams and her own body absolutely to him. Mary seems to know that she is owned by Another. The message that has come to her through the angel is absolute and life-changing.[1]

So when you find yourself up against things – whether you are confronting some of the great existential questions of life, such as “Why is this hurting so much?” or “When will healing come?” or “What next?”, or whether you are encountering yet another situation where it seems as though a colleague is determined to ride your last nerve, to poke and dig at some source of irritation, or to accuse you of that which is not true… When any of those things are going on in your life, it might be helpful to remember the practices enjoined by Samuel and Mary.

Remember that you are still – and that you are always – learning how to live in the life of faith. There is no one in this room who can claim to have mastered that. Some days, you may feel as though you’ve made a lot of progress, and you can think, “Wow! I’m glad I am not where I used to be…” But never forget that each and every one of us has a long way to go on our journey toward maturity and discipleship.

Try to remember what you told your daughter when she was learning to tie her shoes, or what your friend told you when he was trying to teach you how to drive a stick-shift car: Slow down. Relax. Let’s try this again. Watch.

Remember not to take yourself so seriously. In all probability, the situation in which you find yourself is not really and ultimately about you anyway. In any case, the realities of your life at this instant are offering you with an opportunity to come alongside of God and to help conform God’s world to God’s intentions.

You know, that all sounds pretty good. Relax. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Give yourself a break. As God for help. Remember that you are a part of the thing that God is doing in the world.

Nobody would be surprised to show up for worship on the fourth Sunday of Advent and hear the preacher spouting stuff like that. It’s the sort of thing that we think we pay for from the pulpit.

But here’s something that struck me as I contemplated the nativity narratives: actually doing those things is easier for some people than others. I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, Carver goes to school for a hundred and twelve years, and then serves as a pastor for a quarter of a century, and he’s beginning to get a glimmer of understanding that we’re not all alike…”

That’s not what I mean. Look with me at some of the stories you all know about the birth of Jesus – the biggest, newest, most amazing thing that God is doing. The angels are dispatched to the Shepherds – a lowly, marginalized group on the fringes of that culture – with a message of God’s new and amazing thing, and how do the shepherds respond? “Let us go to Bethlehem and see!” The star shines in the East, and a group of foreign non-believers sense that there is something overwhelmingly compelling about this particular event, and they leave everything behind and prepare themselves to worship whoever or whatever they meet at their journey’s end. In each case, you have a group of people who are less invested in the status quo, less tied in with how they think that the story should end, and they respond by saying, “Wow, this is the coolest thing ever. Let’s move into this a little deeper!”

On the other hand, the more entrenched the participants are in their own practices and understanding of the life of faith, the harder it is for them to perceive this new thing that God is doing.

Mary is a teenaged girl who is, from everything we can tell, simply trying to do the right thing: to worship and serve God, to honor her parents and her commitments… she hears word of this astounding plan and raises her hand, haltingly, to ask a clarifying question…

Joseph is a responsible, righteous, well-regarded member of the community. He is afraid of bringing disgrace on his own family as well as that of Mary, and when he is confronted with this impossibility, he decides in his heart that he can’t possibly get behind this and so he plans a quiet bit of legal action to make everything go away quietly.

Zechariah, the priest serving in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the one who was chosen to be the father of John the Baptist – the man who, as much as anyone in this part of the story is an insider aligned with a particular way of understanding God at work in the world – he hears word of what is happening and is so surprised and upset by it that he actually argues with the angel and is struck mute as a result. And although the other priest of whom we read this morning, Eli, does not figure in the narrative of the nativity, it is worth pointing out that he cannot even hear the voice of God speaking when the Spirit announces the intention to do something new.

Could it be that in our quest to consider ourselves “mature Christians” and “growing disciples” that we may be prematurely declaring that we know what God wants and we can take it from here, thank you very much? Could it be possible that in my quest to take care of things and try to impress either you or God with my wisdom or insight or faith or whatever… that I have lost something of my ability to wonder at and seek to join in with God’s purposes?

At the end of the day, both Samuel and Mary are able to adopt a posture that is first and foremost humble, teachable, and trusting.

Samuel says, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

Mary echoes, “I am your slave. Let it be to me according to your word.”

When Jesus’ friend John wrote his account of Jesus’ life, he didn’t tell any stories about when Jesus was born. But he did give Jesus an interesting label: John said that Jesus was the “word” for God. There are all kinds of good reasons for that, I’m sure. Perhaps chief among them for me, this morning at any rate, is the fact that Jesus was the Word that was shaping Samuel (“Speak, O Lord…”. Jesus was the Word that was preparing Mary (“Let it be to me according to your Word…”).

Today, dear friends, and in the days to come, let me encourage you to find some quiet spot. Unplug. Listen. I suspect that the Word which became apparent to Samuel and to Mary is longing to become audible to you in a new fresh way here in Advent of 2017.

And you say, “Yeah, but it’s Christmas Eve! And did you see the news? Taxes! Russia! Cancer! Wildfires! Jobs! Those idiots in congress! How am I supposed to unplug?”

Listen. Seek God’s face for half an hour. None of those things are going anywhere fast. They’ll all be right where you left them when you get back. The question is, can you be different as you consider the questions in your life and in our world? If Christmas means anything, it means that you can. Thanks be to God, we all can. Amen.

[1] Michael Card, Luke: The Gospel of Amazement (Biblical Imagination Series, IVP 2011), p. 39.

The Gift of Story

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was The Word.  What is the “Word of God”, and how do we experience it?  Scriptures included Exodus 19:1-9 and Mark 1:14-20.

When is the last time you found yourself holding something that you wanted to throw away, but you didn’t know how to do it? Some things are just impossible to get rid of, aren’t they? What would you say is the hardest thing to dispose of?

97717028.datNuclear waste would be a top contender, of course. Unless you’ve got a huge desert or underground bunker somewhere, you’re out of luck. The City won’t take that, even on recycling days.

If you live in the city, you know that we can’t throw away electronics, or batteries, or certain kinds of light bulbs without causing damage to the environment. Leftover paint is also a concern.

FlagDisposalWhat about a torn US flag? We’ve been taught that the flag should never touch the ground…what do we do with it when it’s so weathered that we don’t want to use it? We can’t just throw it away, can we?

We could go on and on. Have you ever tried to dispose of used motor oil? Acne? An old boyfriend? Some things, you just can’t get rid of…

old_bibleHere’s one more challenge that many of you have faced: old Bibles. I know that, because I can’t tell you how many times someone has shown up with a box of beat-up, torn, musty and even moldy books and said, “Um, well, Pastor Dave, I needed to get rid of these, but I couldn’t throw them away, so, well, I thought maybe the church could use them.”

Yeah, because nothing says “We’re moving forward” like raggedy old books that appear to be coated with penicillin.

No, seriously, I get it. Nobody wants to be seen as disrespectful. Do you take a Bible and just throw it in the trash? Can you shred it? What do you do?

TorahburialWhen Muslims encounter a copy of the Quran that is beyond repair, they are instructed to burn it. When scrolls containing the Jewish Torah were ruined as a result of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they were buried in a cemetery alongside the grave of their beloved former Rabbi.

I you don’t think me to be a heathen, but when I am given an unusable copy of the Bible, it goes into the recycling bin. That’s what I do with old paper.

“But Pastor Dave! It’s a holy book! It’s the Word of God! How can you do that?”

Let’s talk about the Word of God. We are in the midst of a series of sermons wherein we’re looking at worship, and how what we do shapes who we are becoming. Let’s say that this is the first time you’ve ever heard of the Christian faith. You’ve stumbled in here this morning and were handed a bulletin that contains an order for worship. If all you knew about this congregation or the church was the bulletin, you would assume that whatever this thing called “The Word” was, it was pretty darned important. The major headings in our service are “God’s People Prepare for the Word”, “God’s People Receive the Word”, and “God’s People Respond to the Word.” Our whole time together is designed so that we can somehow encounter this thing called the Word.

What is the Word of God?

It’s not the Bible.

“Oh, snap! Come on, kids, it’s time to find a new church. Pastor Dave just said that the Bible is not the Word of God.”

Stay with me – I would much rather say that the Bible contains the Word of God, or even better yet, the Bible is the primary means that we can come to know the Word of God. But I don’t think that this volume of 1095 pages of beautiful onionskin paper IS the Word.

TheWordIt actually says as much in here: John 1 says that Jesus is the Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…”

Jesus is the ultimate message from God. Jesus is the means by which God has chosen to communicate most intimately God’s self.

In today’s scripture reading, we have two accounts of ways in which the Creator bursts into human reality and says, “Hey, listen! I have something to tell you.” Whether it is God approaching the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai or Jesus calling fishermen along the shores of Galilee, the story that is The Story is that God longs to give himself to his creation. And the way that God does that, it seems to me, is through the Word.

In Genesis 1, God goes about the business of creating a cosmos, and how does it happen? “God said.” Everything that you can see and a bazillion times more that you can’t see is a result of God’s saying. And all the way over here on page 1095, in Revelation 22, the Spirit says, “these words are trustworthy”. God uses words, or, more precisely, God’s Word, forms creation and all that is.

The Bible is composed of words that are from, or about, or to God. This book is the most important book ever written, published, or read.

It is not so important because of the kind of paper or ink that has been used, or the beauty of its lettering. The language of publication doesn’t particularly matter. If this book is important at all (and, as I’ve said, I believe it to be the most important volume ever assembled), it is important because of what it says – the message to which it points.

When we look at the bulletin and see that our worship is shaped to enable us to prepare for, receive, and respond to the Word of God, we embrace the truth that there is a Story. There is a great narrative to which we are privy and, in fact, in which we are included. The Bible is unlike any other book. It’s not a recipe, as much as some people would have you believe that if you do these certain things and add those specific ingredients, then that result is guaranteed to occur. And it’s not a textbook, wherein we are given the answers to all our questions. And it’s not a work of history that allows us to have a perfect chronological understanding of all the places we used to be.

If this book is valuable, it is valuable because it testifies to the fact that God has spoken and that God still speaks.

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515)

We don’t come in here and read the Gospel and say, “Wow! Good for Peter! He met Jesus and his life was changed.” We read the Gospel and we remember that somehow, somewhere, Jesus invited us to get out of whatever particular boat we were drifting around in and summoned us into new purposes and callings. We read, we listen, we look for, and we submit to what is written here so that we are better able to play our own part in the Story that is still being told.

That’s why it is so important that our Order of Worship contains a little piece called the “Prayer for Illumination”. The whole of our worship is built on the Bible – but before we read it, we pray that the Spirit who caused the Word to be uttered and the words to be recorded and preserved will allow us to hear the Word in ways that bring life and health and peace to our world today. This book isn’t magic, and when Jason and Lindsay come up here and read it, there’s no hocus pocus. In fact, unless the One who began everything by speaking a Word empowers us, we can’t hear or receive a blessed thing.

One of the most humbling things that I have ever heard was told to me by an eighth-grader in Rochester, New York more than twenty years ago. We were talking about the “Prayer of Illumination” and Christina said, “Look, I don’t know if this is going to make any sense or not, but here’s what I think happens. I think that after the Bible is read, then an angel shows up and freezes everyone – you know, stops time. And the angel goes right up to Pastor Dave and whispers in his ear the things that God needs us to hear right then. And because time is frozen, none of us know it – and Pastor Dave doesn’t know it either – but somehow, the combination of the Bible being read, Pastor Dave being willing to help us learn more about it, and God’s Spirit wanting us to know what it means in the right now – it all ends up us being better able to follow God and Jesus today.”

Do you see? I don’t think that my young friend was actually describing her belief about how God interacts with the space/time continuum. I think that she was pointing to the amazing truth that the letters on this page and the noises that come out of my mouth are unintelligible unless somehow God’s Holy Spirit gives us a sense of the Story that is bigger than we can imagine. We come in here to Worship the Storyteller, not to venerate the book.

Having said that, however, I want to caution us against treating what this book says too lightly. I believe we are called to learn the Story, and the Bible is the way that God has given us to do that. When I say that we can learn the Story, I mean that we approach this volume with humility and anticipation, expecting that there is much here to shape and form us. I mean that we are called to walk around inside of the Bible and seek to learn who’s who, where things happened, and what was being communicated in places like Philippi or Babylon or under the oak tree in Mamre or beside the pillars in Solomon’s Porch. We are invited to hear the voices of the captives who cry out and the kings who refuse to submit to God and the Pharisees who arrested Peter and John and the One who preached a sermon on a hill outside of Capernaum.

You see, we know that those things – the chronology and the cast of characters and the geography – do not save us. And yet, it is in those things that we discover the meaning that the Story contains. We read the songs and the histories and the love stories and the terrible things that happen and from it all the Message emerges. Learn the story.

And don’t just learn it, but love the Story. Allow it to wash over you in ways that remind you that God’s intentions for you and for this world are life and joy. Love the story by walking into it again and again, and by inviting others to hear the parts of it that resonate most deeply with your own spirit. Hold the story up to your world and see that it is true in new and fresh ways in 2014.

“But Pastor Dave,” you say, “I can’t do all of that. Some of it bothers me.” Then hold that up, too. This summer, I was reading a book that was totally engrossing – it held my interest and called forth the best from me. And then I got to a paragraph that just did not make sense at all. I took the book to a couple of friends and I read them the paragraph and said, “Help me see what I’m missing here.” And they were stumped. So, since it’s 2014 and I’m a big boy with a computer and the internet, I emailed the author and I said, “Hey, what’s up with page 214?” And to my delight, a couple of days later, the author got back to me and said, “This is what that means…” If you are having trouble with part of the Story, then talk to the author about it! Love the story, and love the Story Teller enough to say, “OK, Lord, you’re gonna have to walk me through this part of it one more time…”

And finally, if you learn the story and come to love the story, you will be equipped to live the story. Again, the purpose of this book is not so that you will be able to give everyone you meet a day by day account of what Moses did in the wilderness, or the recipe for the communion bread that Jesus used, or name five significant differences between Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Edomites. To quote John again, this is “written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31).

Let me put it this way: God didn’t tell us a story so that we could know what happened once upon a time in a faraway galaxy. God has spoken so that we, God’s people, might embrace the message and live in such a way that the Story continues to be heard and received.

In one of the foundational documents for our church, we read that the church is to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”[1] I think that means that the way that we live together and treat each other and respond to the world around us ought to reflect the purposes that God has for the world. The world should know the Story that is contained in the Bible simply by watching the way that the church acts – and in our living of this Story, we can perhaps inspire others to want to learn it and come to love it.

One of the most significant theologians of the 20th century was a German pastor named Karl Barth, who thought amazingly profound thoughts as he taught a congregation in Switzerland while listening to the guns of the World War pounding in the distance. As he considered the importance of the Bible for his era – and for ours – he said this:

“What is there within the Bible?” It is a dangerous question. We might do better not to come too near this burning bush. For we are sure to betray what is—behind us! The Bible gives to every man and every era such answers to your questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and “historical” content, if transitory and “historical” content that we seek. Nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. The question, “What is in the Bible?” has a mortifying way of converting itself into the opposing question, “Well, what are you looking for, and who are you, pray, who make bold to look?”[2]

When we worship, we seek to learn this word in order that we might love The Word to the end that those who might never find a copy of this book might hear an eternal Word and know that the Story is for them. As it is for you. I have a hunch that if we are able to live like that, I’ll have a lot more heavily-read, worn-out Bibles on my hands. I’ll take it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] This is the sixth “Great End” of the church and has been a part of our official polity for well over a hundred years. F-1.0304 contains all six of the “Great Ends of the Church”.

[2] Karl Barth, The Strange New World Within the Bible, (published in The Word of God and the Word of Man, Pilgrim Press, 1928).