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“Facing Truth – the First Step”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11
2 Peter 3:8-9
Mark 1:1-8

 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 …See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

2 Peter 3:8-9

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

These infamous words of scripture, “Comfort, comfort, Oh my people”…they cause my heart to sing, strait away.  I am transported into Handel’s Messiah, just like that.

And famous they should be, because they are gospel!  They are good news!

But what we oft’ fail to notice is the Lord’s discipline, which precedes this voice of glad tidings.  The message of comfort is precisely so entirely comforting BECAUSE it comes on the heals of suffering.  It comes on the heals of sleeping in the beds we’ve made for ourselves.  It comes after we are eating our words, after we have our foots in our mouths, after we are ashamed and exposed.

God’s light reveals truth.  And truth shows both our beauty and our haggardly appearance.  We have both.  And by the rules of this world alone, we are stuck, beholden to our own sins, trapped in the cycles of sin and death, willing to do good but seemingly powerless to do it!

And THIS is the place into which the good news comes. 

 

Amid injustice, amid pain and suffering, amid disconnect, amid dissension,…
Amid othering, amid coldness and cruelty, amid oppression and rampant fear…
Jesus comes,
a little baby.
And the earth breaths a sigh, the heaven’s burst forth, and both near and far God’s inbreaking is on display.

 

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that time is but a moment to God.  What we may perceive as God’s slowness to act, is in fact God’s desire that ALL might be saved.  God is patient – more than any of us can comprehend – for God wills that all might come to repentance and enter into that fullness of life!

And so God WAITs until the fullness of time – until the right time.
AND – to aid those still needing a change of heart, still needing a nudge, still needing to grow in humility, God sends John the Baptist.

 

John the Baptist lives in ways most unconventional.  Some only come to see him in order to gawk.  But he is doing the unsettling work.  He is helping folks connect with their yearning, their need, THE REALITIES OF WHO THEY TRULY ARE, fluorescent lights ON.

No wonder some didn’t like him.
No wonder his life would be cut short by a powerful couple who did not like the truth he’d publicly spoken about them…

He spoke truth to power – bringing the things we hide in the dark, out into the light.

 

For it is in the light, that we may find healing…
IF we do not retreat into darkness: defending ourselves, denying the truth, spinning the facts, controlling the news, cutting off the heads of those who speak what we’re intent on hiding.

Because if we think we have no sin,
the truth is not in us.

And where there is no truth there is no life.

 

Christ has come that we might have life,
and have it to THE FULL. 

The full

 

God is not content with facades.
God is not pleased by our outward shows of holiness.
God is not impressed by our score-keeping:  one-upping one another, judging ourselves by one another (and one another by ourselves). We might as well be arguing over various shades of gray; it’s ALL gray.
We have ALL sinned.
We are ALIKE sinners before a Holy God.

And until we come to that realization, we cannot begin to perceive our need for Christ.
And so God sent John the Baptist. 

 

Now, there are those in your life, and in mine,
who tweak your nerves.
There are those in your life, and in mine,
around whom you behave your worst.
There are those who point out your faults,
whether openly or covertly,
And despite our deep desires to be done with these individuals,

God has promised us blessing THROUGH all things.  God can use these moments, these folks, these circumstances as our teachers, our friends.  Around them, we learn more about ourselves.  Our growing edges are made plain, our sensitivities exposed, our triggers on display.

 

And in this way, we oft’ serve as John the Baptists for one another. 

 

Every moment, every person, every circumstance presents us with a chance:  to lean into reality or to retreat, to accept the world on its own terms or to deny it, to accept one another as they are or to try to control them.  When we allow our God-given feelings – especially those angry, uglier ones – to teach us, we too step into the light.  We too allow ourselves to be exposed, as in fluorescent light.

And we have the opportunity to engage the truths about ourselves, others, and the world; or to hide from them. 

 

But if we trust that God is using all things for good in our lives,
then we begin to look for the lessons, the truths.

If we believe that God has given us our feelings and that they are inherently good,
we can make peace in ourselves and allow them to teach us.

And if we believe that Christ is coming still today,
that God is present and alive today,
then we are ever on watch, ever seeking, ever waiting.

 

 

Who may God have sent into your life to be a John the Baptist?

You may be drawn to them, as were the multitudes who traveled out to the wilderness from the city to be baptized by him.
You may be repulsed by them, and come all that way from the city just to gawk and make fun.
You may feel threatened by them because they expose truth.

 

But God has sent them.
God has allowed them.

And in these circumstances you might rather avoid, God is providing you the chance to prepare the way of the Lord, by listening for God’s voice of truth and turning from sin. 

 

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our hearts?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our minds?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our openness, in our listening for God – even in the faces of those who irritate us?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord? 

 

There was a good reason God sent John the Baptist ahead:  we don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, we don’t like to sit with our failures, we don’t like to get real with ourselves or others about our shortcomings, we DO NOT LIKE to change under fluorescent lights.

But when we listen to the voices of John the Baptists,
when we look ourselves over in honesty and truth, in the mirrors of our changing rooms,
we are made ready: 
ready for God-with-us! 

 

So repent! Let us turn from our life-diminishing, truth-denying, sin-sabotaged ways, and prepare the way of Christ, the Lord. 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

PRAYER                (Psalm 85:8-9a)

Let me hear what You, Lord God, will speak,
for You will speak peace to your people,
to your faithful, to those who turn to You in their hearts.
Surely your salvation is at hand for those who fear you!

“Loudly He Wept”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Genesis 45:1-15

 

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.  God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

 

Genesis 45:1-15

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.

“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have. I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’

“You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that it is really I who am speaking to you. Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen. And bring my father down here quickly.”

Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.


 

What goodness can follow atrocity.  What healing can come after grave injury.  What morning light can dawn after fierce storms.

 

Here we witness the reunion of these brothers, from one Father and several different mothers.  It is a reunion none of them saw coming…or not exactly.  These brothers had betrayed their own humanity, selling their own brother Joseph to traders to be a slave.  But in a strange and twisted yet truthful kind of way, we can be grateful that they brothers had chosen to sell him over killing him, which was their first instinct.

You see they hated him.  He said things.  Unwise things.

God filled young Joseph with dreams and visions.  And naïve or unfiltered or autistic or perhaps boastful as he was (…we do not know why), he spoke these dreams aloud, no filter, sharing them with his family.  And they did not take kindly to these visions – for Joseph dreamed that he would rule over his brothers and whole family.

It was unsettling.

 

I have wished he’d paused a moment to assess and to reconsider sharing these dreams.  I wonder if he even perceived how it would be taken by his siblings.  Did he sense their anger and resentment?  Did he not anticipate their jealousy over the favor his father showed him?

And why did Joseph share the 2nd time?  He shared one time, and I imagine that couldn’t have gone well.  So when he had yet another of these dreams, why did he share it yet again?

I do not know.

My heart breaks for him.

 

Can you imagine the emotional trauma?  Talk about post-traumatic-stress!
Can you imagine the betrayal?  Can you imagine the sense of abandonment?

What scars Joseph must have carried.  What fears he must have had to live with.

 

He was a good worker and advanced in his servant role to a man named Potiphar, but alas, Potiphar’s wife took interest in him, and when her advances were shunned she decided to slander Joseph – accusing him of violating her.

And thus, Joseph is thrown into yet another hole.  This time it isn’t an abandoned well – meant to hold him until his murder by family.  It isn’t the abandoned well that ended up being his holding cell before being sold to strangers and taken away from all he knew and everyone he held dear.  No, this time it was an actual cell, the hole of prison, and he stayed there for a long, long time, falsely accused, with no justice.

 

Some among us truly endure far more pain and loss than others of us.  Some of us FEEL more pain in our experiences than others.  And some have hardened the walls of their hearts to protect them from these painful moments, years, and lifetimes.

Joseph was one who endured more than he ever should have had to.

Even if he was boastful or proud, sharing his dreams and visions…
Even though his father favored him above the others…
Even if he was unwise in sharing his dreams…

It doesn’t matter.  None of this should have stripped him of home and family and freedom.

…and for SO long.

 

Yet this is Joseph’s story.

 

And when his brothers begin journeying to Egypt to buy grain – after Joseph’s interpretation of dreams has finally freed him from prison and placed him even over Pharaoh’s entire household that he might lead the nation in surviving the coming years of great famine – these brothers have no idea they will see their brother.  They have no idea where he is.  They do not know whether he is dead or alive.  He was probably the last person they ever expected to see again.

And can you imagine Joseph’s feelings upon seeing them?

You’ll see he first tests his brothers.  He puts them in compromised situations in order to see how they will handle themselves.  He wants to be sure that his younger brother Benjamin – his only full-blooded brother – is not being mistreated as well.  He wants to know who his brothers have become.

And when he experiences their changed hearts, he is broken open with grief released and gladness.  He is overcome, such that he can no longer hold back, but weeps so loudly that all of Pharaoh’s house hear it.

 

I have long loved this story.  It may be my favorite in the Bible.  But what I am moved by today is Joseph’s release.  He can no longer hold in his feelings.  They all come tumbling out.  Finally.

And furthermore, I wonder if his dreams came back to mind.  Did he remember his celestial dream, where his family bowed before him, …now that they are all bowing before him?  Could any of them have foreseen the path Joseph would walk to get to this point?  Could any of them have foreseen how their own actions would be woven by God into a tapestry of goodness and life?  Could any have imagined how, what was intended for evil, God used for great good?  And here Joseph is, choosing to see his life, not as a victim but as a messenger, sent ahead of them by God, to save lives.

 

I tend to have visions of an end but no idea as to how to get there.  Like Joseph, I am left wondering what it all means, as none of it yet seems true.  And I’ve long wondered why God does this.  Why does God give me vision?

Sometimes, especially when I am in the pits of life, I can resent these visions because they seem so far-fetched.  I can get discouraged.

But God is faithful.
Whatever God says, is true. 

If God says something will be, then it will be.  And God can use whatever comes, to get there.  We can work with God or against God.  Those are our choices.

 

Joseph chose to trust his dreams and visions.  God showed him, over and over again that they were true.  He was leading an entire nation in preparing for a major time of famine – based solely on a dream…a dream

And yet, to this point, he had not yet seen his earliest dreams come true…

Until

Now.

 

God speaks to each one of us, in different ways.

Some dream dreams.
Some interpret.
Some have visions.
Some interpret.
Some perceive the end.
Some perceive the path.

But God is speaking.
And God is trustworthy. 

 

May we have the courage and audacity

To follow our dreams – the visions God plants in our hearts –
And to believe that God is indeed working ALL things for good
For those who love God
And are called according to God’s purposes.
For God is the primary actor in this play.
God is using it all to save lives. 

God is working God’s purposes out.

Will we trust God’s call,
and join in the work? 

 


 

PRAYERS   

                                                                       (Iona Abby WB)
Creator Spirit, wellspring of our lives,
as the refreshing rain falls on the just and unjust alike
refresh us with your mercy, who knows our own injustice.
As the stream flows steadily on, defying all the odds of stone and water,
flow over every boundary and border that separates us from each other.
As the waters of our baptism washed us and welcomed us
renew us now in newness of life and unity of love.
As we were once held in the waters of our mother’s womb,
hold us now in the power and peace of your abiding presence. 

                                                                        (Richard J. Foster)
Today I accept your acceptance of me.
I confess that you are always with me and always for me.
I receive into my spirit your grace, your mercy, your care.
I rest in your love, O Lord.  I rest in your love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLESSING                                            (Vienna Cobb Anderson)

The blessing of God,

whose love reconciles all who are divided,

be with you

as you seek to heal the brokenness

around you.

‘Thanks Be to God”

I still count my blessings grateful that my church search when relocating to Richmond in 2010 landed me at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church (FHPC).  Worshiping and learning in the warm fellowship of FHPC has felt like a series of mindful, nurturing experiences, touched by the Word, feeling the Holy Spirit, all summoning out what I should be as a growing disciple of Christ.

I’ve learned in this decade at FHPC that the mark of an effective church is not how old it is or how many people come, but how many people live differently as a result of having been to that church.  I know God is love, that He loves us, and He wants us to love others, not only in our thoughts and prayers, but also in our actions and deeds.  For all that we have flows from God’s overwhelming love and grace.  And all that we do with what we have flows from saying thank you to God in grateful response for His love and grace.  Feeling the compelling call of Micah 6:8 to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, I know that I’m living differently.  I praise and thank God more, I’ve grown more spiritually as a disciple, I serve more human needs, I pray more, and I give back more of my time, talent, and treasure that God first gave me.

Now in 2020, it is still clear to me that the people of FHPC continue to serve the Lord with gladness, creativity, faith, and perseverance since June 22, 1924.  While honoring our rich history, we are building a new future, taking many small steps toward big visions, for the God who called us and nurtured us in this place still has a role for FHPC to play in His kingdom.  And so we continue to cultivate enthusiasm as disciples for exercising our spiritual gifts both inside and outside the church doors.   What a blessing to have a strong-in-spite-of-small congregation at FHPC ever faithful to the ministry and mission of God in Christ!  Thanks be to God!

 

PM

“Forever Changed”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 5:1-11
Jeremiah 29:11

 

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Jeremiah 19:11

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.


 

What a fantastic Gospel story we read today.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has begun teaching in the synagogues and word is spreading about him, but he’s not yet chosen disciples.  This is that moment in Luke, when the first disciples follow Jesus.

Since this story differs from the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Matthew and Mark, this raises the obvious questions of which story accurately reflects what happened, and that is an answer I don’t have.  Both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts are almost identical.  That suggests that perhaps their accounts are more factual, but it can also simply mean they had the same source or that one of them used the other one of them as their source.  So ultimately, we do not have an answer to question of what actually happened.

But as is the case with much of scripture, I suspect the questions of substance are less about what transpired exactly in that moment and more about the truths communicated by each story.  As we’ve discussed before, Hebrew Rabbinic tradition cared less about facts, as we would define them in our modern world.  And as in all of life, every witness experiences things from differing points of view, even focusing on entirely different elements of the same shared moment.  They didn’t have i-phones, camcorders, or tape players.  So necessarily over time, stories – just like our memories – shift.  Perspectives would change from storyteller to storyteller.  What remained was truth.  And that is what we are called to listen for in these stories.

 

So here we have Jesus calling his first disciples.  It isn’t even so much an ask as a telling.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Come and follow me.”  Jesus simply states that from that moment forward, they would no longer catching fish but catching people.  And they leave everything and follow him.

 

Would you do it?

Would you leave everything and follow Jesus?

If you had been there, witnessing this life and love and hope never-before-seen, would you have left everything to follow him?

 

I honestly don’t know.  We have responsibilities.  We have rents.  We have mortgages.  We have aging parents.  We have children.  We have jobs.  We have obligations…

And so did they.

What made them so willing to step out with abandon into unknown territory following Jesus?

 

They have just witnessed Jesus teaching the people.  They have just witnessed the multitude in awe at his words.  Their own work wasn’t going so swell.  They’d fished the whole night, catching nothing.  And here, this traveling new preacher goes and tells them how to do their job?  Where does he get off?!?  I imagine they may have thought him naïve, arrogant, or out of place.  Couldn’t he just stick to teaching?  Why’d he have to meddle in their business.

Simon (Peter) protests, but says that because Jesus has asked, he will do what Jesus has said.  We don’t know if he did it grudgingly.  But it does seem clear he’s not keen.  After all, this was the END of their workday.  They’d been cleaning their nets in order to put them away.  They were done – hungry, sleepy, beat.  And here this teacher goes and starts telling them how to do their jobs.

How do you feel when someone purports to know how to do your job better than you do?

Have you ever been at the end of yourself and had someone say, “Oh, well all you have to do is do it this way.”

 

How have these moments made you feel?

What have they risen within you?

 

I can say that these moments have not risen kind and happy thoughts within me.  So while it is possible Simon and his fellow fishermen were eager to get back out and try again, I suspect they were anything but eager.  I suspect they were anything but optimistic.  I suspect the only thing they had going for them here was their obedience to Jesus.

And that is something.

That is something God can work with.  Obedience is a surrendering of sorts.  It places another person’s will ahead of our own.  It requires setting down our own intention and taking on someone else’s.

Obedience is hard.

 

But the hardest part of obedience is trusting that the one telling us what to do really knows what their talking about,…trusting that they know what is best,…trusting that they have our best interest at heart.  And this is why it’s so hard to trust one another in this world – because so rarely do others have our best interest at heart.  We tend to get caught up in our own needs too much to be truly concerned and aware of what others need.  Our own needs most often trump the needs of others in our lives.  And even when we do want to do what’s best for another, we rarely truly know what IS best for them.  This is why telling others what to do gets so sticky and dicey.

 

But this is also why God alone is worthy of our full obedience.

God alone truly KNOWS what is right and good and true.  God alone truly KNOWS what is best, what will work, what will lead to a future of hope.  God alone can see how one moment will connect to another.  God alone can foresee how everything fits together and all that is coming.

God ALONE is in a position to rightly guide us.

And in Jesus Christ, we have witnessed God pouring Godself out for our sakes!  Christ put his life on the line, laying his life down, all for our sakes.

 

In God alone, we meet the One able to lead us well. 

 

If we trust anyone in this world, may it be God.

 

I realize that for many of us God seems trustworthy for the big eternal stuff but perhaps not for the issues we face everyday.  Does God really even care about the stuff we are having to make decisions about every day?!?

I would say yes, God does care about all the decisions of our lives because God cares for us.  A God who knows the number of hairs on our head and the number of tears we’ve ever cried, surely cares for all of us, not just the “holy” parts of our lives.   Last I checked, hair and tears aren’t usually considered all that holy, and yet they matter to God.

That also means our finances, our jobs, our businesses, our decisions…

Our families, our households, our relationships…

Our everything matters to God.

 

AND God alone can rightly guide us.

Not only that, but God alone has our best interest at heart.

So we can be confident that wherever God leads, it is the very best for us.

 

Do you believe it?

 

Here Jesus steps into these young Galilean fishermen’s business and shows them that there is far more going on below the surface of the water than they can even begin to know.  Here Jesus shows them that he can indeed provide for all they need.  Here Jesus faces up against their livelihoods and blesses them with more abundance than they dreamed possible – blessing OVERFLOWING!  Here Jesus shows them that he is God and they are not.

 

And something clicks.

 

Life is so much better with him. 

How could they ever go back to the way things were before? 

 

 

May we meet the Living God in ways that bowl us over.

May we be obedient to God – following the Spirit’s lead in our lives – and SEE the Living God provide, blessings overflowing!

May we be so changed that going back to life as usual just isn’t an option

For we have met with the LIVING GOD, and our lives will never be the same.

 

Christ meet us, and may we never be the same.