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“Make Space for the Unexpected”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Jeremiah 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


 

Even more-so than we did not see Covid-19 coming, the Disciples and all of Israel and Judea couldn’t see Jesus’ resurrection coming.

Now they foresaw his death.  In the weeks before his death, when Jesus resolved to return to Judea despite his disciples’ warnings not to return to a land so recently hostile to him, we hear Thomas resigning himself to death with Jesus:  “Let us return with him, that we may also die with him.”  The tension is rising.  The conflict is mounting.  Discomfort with Jesus’ identity and power and authority have reached their natural boiling point, and the disciples want to keep Jesus miles and miles away from it.  But Jesus returned.

Jesus returned. 

And he would not be safe.  Not at all.

 

But despite the fact that Jesus had been alluding to his resurrection… despite the fact that many truly believed him to be the Messiah… despite the fact that Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead… no one could begin to imagine what God had in store next.

Death was to be avoided at all cost.
Death marked the end.
Death had finality.
Death was the end of the movement.

And so when Jesus is crucified on a cross, for all to see, many of the disciples hide in fear.  They have given the last years of their lives following Jesus, and now Jesus has gone and gotten himself killed.  Will they be next?

And so, in classic moves of survival, they turn their gaze inward.  They hunker down and button the hatchets.  They tighten their inner circle.  They spend their days in a dark room.  They look back upon their former careers and wonder if there’s still a place for them there.  They start to worry about their next meal.  The fishing begins again…

 

Do you know what it is like to hunker down in fear?

 

And no one – no one – saw a future past that cross.

How could they?
How could they imagine a future never before seen in all the world?!
That Jesus would arise from death’s strong grip?
Flesh and blood?
Asking for a bite to eat??

No one.

Now the Israelites were a nation occupied.  They had been colonized by Rome.  They paid the emperor taxes.  They had known victory and defeat, power and exile.  But most common to their experience was uncertainty, change.  They ever faced threats of annihilation.  They built and others tore down.  Nothing seemed sure.  And the people were antsy.  Some were ready to bring on a bloody war with Rome, a war they surely would not have won.  Others played the system, buying their power with purchased Roman citizenship.  And others still tried to exercise their religious power and authority while ignoring the occupying forces (until they found ways the occupiers could carry out their will…such as in the condemnation of Jesus).  Herod had razed the holy city in order to rebuilt it, bigger and better and mightier, with Roman architecture and Roman authority.

It seemed like everyone else was pulling the strings of this nation.  And the people of Israel yearned for independence and autonomy.  They yearned for liberation and power.

But at the very least, couldn’t they just plant a fruit tree and own it long enough to eat of its fruit?  At the very least, couldn’t they reap what they sowed? 

Could they have control over their lives enough
To know the reward of their labors, their energies, their affections?
To build a house and live in it?

To this nation who has known plenty and known want… to this nation who has known both power and powerlessness… to this people who yearn for something to place their hope in, comes this prophetic word:

“Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.”

What this describes is hope.

And isn’t that what we’re grasping for now?

 

Will our mortgage companies allow us to defer payments?
Will our jobs hold out?
Will all those we love, still be here when all this passes?

Will this pass?

 

We are grasping for hope.

 

Are the efforts I’m taking enough?
Can my body overcome the virus if I catch it?
Can my family overcome it, if I spread it to them?
Will there be enough beds and staff and masks and ventilators if I need medical intervention?

And what is the world becoming?

So many are rediscovering simple joys –
writing letters and postcards,
riding bicycles,
taking long walks,
slowing down,
sitting on porches,
making music,
reading and writing poetry,
calling friends and family,
taking advantage of online tools we’ve had for years yet seldom used.

We are more aware than ever that each one affects us all, for better and for worse.  We are more aware than ever that our life and healing is bound up in our working together, whatever our differences.  We are more open to outcomes we wouldn’t have before considered.

But

Is this the world we want to live in, bound up, each in our own house?
How long can we sustain?
Will new and even designer viruses hijack life, over and over again?
Will we again know the touch of a grandchild’s hand in ours,
the loving embrace of a true friend,
the gathering of the body of Christ?

 

We need hope… hope that we will eat of the fruit trees we’ve planted… hope that we will continue to dwell in the homes in which we’ve labored and loved… hope that our diligent service will be remembered as company’s consider cuts…

Hope that our children will once again gather together to learn and to play… hope that love for neighbor won’t be eclipsed by fear of neighbor… hope that we may once again gather to worship and serve in the community of Forest Hill…

 

It is easy to see our fears.  We practically manifest them as we ruminate on all the ways we might meet our demise or experience loss and pain.  It is easy to worry.  There are way too many things out of our control right now.  It is easy to despair….when we cannot see a path forward.

 

The people of Israel who have followed Jesus from shore to shore, see their hope dying on the cross with Jesus that day.

The disciples who have seen Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, now fear their own deaths.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, breathes her last goodbye to her beloved son.

 

But JESUS returns. 

Jesus comes back.

 

When we could not see any hope, our Lord overcame the grizzly bonds of death and blew us all away, in life after death! 

 

Friends, I do not know your particular fears in this time.  I do not know your particular worries.  I do not know how the waters rage around you.

But I do feel the waters rising.  I know the gravity of fear.  I have known the sting of loss.

 

But JESUS returns.  Our Lord God popped the top clear off of our greatest imaginings and made hope where there was no hope, made life where there was death, made a future of hope where there was once despair. 

 

Let us leave room for the unexpected.
Let us open ourselves to the unimaginable.

Is there room in your mind for a new uncovering of Truth?

Is there room in your heart for God’s expansive love of neighbor…and stranger?

Is there room in your day for meeting someone new.

 

A gift of this dreadful pandemic is the shaking up of our days.  Because it gives us all a chance to re-evaluate and to decide WHAT is important.

 

Without openness,
Without space,
Without humility,
Without intention,
We can miss God’s resurrection power,
God’s word of HOPE spoken over our lives, and all creation.

 

We serve the crucified, yet Risen Christ,
the Christ who returned.

Whatever your despair, make room for the resurrection power of God. 

Make room for hope

“Do You Hear God’s Whisper?”

Reverend Katherine Todd
Matthew 4:12-23
Isaiah 9:1-4

 

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Isaiah 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.


 

 

In our passage today from Isaiah, I recognize this beautiful proclamation that those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, but what I’d never before noticed was the sentence just before:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

 

I have poured over commentaries and Biblical scholarship on this verse, because this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” is unique.  In fact the only other time it occurs in scripture is in Matthew, the other scripture we read today, where the apostle is quoting this very verse from Isaiah.

So what does it mean, “Galilee of the nations.”

 

Some look to the state of that area of Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime.  The Assyrian empire had overrun much of Naphtali & Zebulun, so it is reasoned that Isaiah is foretelling of a time in which this area, overrun & disgraced, will become glorious.

But this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” harkens to other phrases like “city on a hill” and “light of the world.”  Usually we think of Jerusalem specifically or Israel generally as being called to be this light for the nations.  So why here is Galilee being lifted up specifically as “of the nations”?

Is it because Galilee had been so overrun by people of other nations?

It is because Galilee itself will become this light to the nations?

 

Scholars are not in agreement about how to interpret this phrase.

But I find it noteworthy that wherever Jesus goes, there is transformation.

 

This remote area of Israel, not firmly secured, overtaken is worthy of mention because it becomes the land of hope.  It becomes the place from which those who have lived in deep darkness will find a great light.

 

A number of years ago several books came out by Bruce Wilkinson.  In them he walks the reader through more obscure texts of the Bible and opens them in a real and personal way.  You may be familiar with his most famous of these books, “The Prayer of Jabez.”

Well, I found his book, “The Dream Giver,” most encouraging.  In it he describes a character who is given a dream by God and allows us to accompany them on their journey of faith and doubt, support and resistance, hope and fulfillment.  What struck me most was that the character, upon reaching the promised land of his dream, is distressed by the terrible shape in which he finds the place.  While his dream had shown a city shining and bright, he instead finds a city dingy and dirty.

He is discouraged.  This land does not look like the promised land of his dreams.  But the author’s point is that dream, the vision, is of what God is doing THROUGH the character.  In other words, the city looks dingy & dirty now because it has not yet been touched by the gifts and vision of this person.  The place isn’t already brilliant.  Rather, the character will make this place brilliant.

 

And this passage from Isaiah paints much the same picture.  Isaiah is hailing Galilee as a city of the nations, but it isn’t anything great.  In fact it is rather despised.  But because of Christ, that whole land where Jesus spends most of his time ministering will become bright and shining, a land of hope and joy and freedom!

 

Christ has a way of transforming things.

Christ has a way of transforming us.

 

This is so very hopeful, because it means that indeed life and hope and joy and freedom can come into the most devastated. 

What are those places today?

What are those places in this city?

Can you name the neighborhoods in which you hesitate to go?

…to drive through?

…neighborhoods where the need outweighs the means,

…where loss is a daily experience?

 

So what if, a prophet today lifted one of those placed up, as a light to the nations, as a road to hope, as a place of hope and transformation.  Would you be amazed? 

Or if the outback of Australia, ravaged by fires, was lifted up as a verdant land, flowing with milk and honey…, would you be amazed? 

 

What situations has God laid on your heart?

What people has God placed on your heart?

What skill has God given you?

What connections has God provided you?

 

Because Christ lives in us, God is transforming the world still.  Today.  Through you.

That even the most devastated, desperate, fearful places may become rivers of hope and refreshing, places of justice and healing.

 

Can you imagine?

 

Jesus is still healing hearts, even those most devastated.

God is still causing people to dream dreams.

God is still planting vision in the heart of people everywhere.

Jesus is still transforming the world,

even and especially in all the most broken and ravaged places.

 

Do you hear God’s whisper?

“Trust and Enjoy”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22
Proverbs 3:5-6

 

Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”…

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.” And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

 

Proverbs 3:5-6

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths

 

 

This is perhaps the hardest, and the easiest, teaching of God to follow and carry out.  God is telling us to simply acknowledge God, in all our ways, and to trust.  That’s our job.  All the other stuff, all the hard stuff, is GOD’s job.  What God asks of us is really not that hard.  Children do this, in their own way, everyday!  God is not asking us to do what we cannot do.  God is asking us only to do what we can do…acknowledge God and trust.

So, why is this SO HARD!?!

 

I think it goes back to that garden and the fruit tree…and the serpent’s luring words:  “God knows when you eat this your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, able to tell good and evil.”

Just like Adam and Eve long ago, we too want to be like God!

We too want to be God!!

We want to play God with our own lives – to control it, to control others, to predict the future, to determine good and evil, to order our days, to get what we want, to shape our lives as we think best!

We don’t want to have a God, we want to be God!

And this is the root of our sin.

 

 

Abraham’s story is a curious story.  Many of us have heard it as children, and it may feel warm and familiar, but have we really sat with it, as adults?

Abraham’s Daddy sets out for the land of Canaan, but when he gets to Haran, he settles there.  No explanation is given.  We don’t know why he was aiming for Canaan in the first place or why he ends up settling in Haran, but this is how it goes.

Now, Abraham’s name back then was Abram, and the next we hear is that God speaks to Abram telling him to take his family & go to the land God will show him.  God tells Abram that he’ll make of him a great nation, in whom all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

God doesn’t say where.

God just says go.

God is asking Abram to trust his spiritual ears – that Abram can and is indeed hearing God speak to him – and to trust the character of God, that if God says it will be good for him, then indeed it will be good for him.

…And the very next thing we read is, “So Abram went, as the Lord told him.”

It is a miraculous affair really.

 

How many people have you met, in your lifetime, who have simply gone somewhere –without anything lined up on the other end – simply because God told them to go and told them it would be good?

 

Have you done this in your life?

Abraham trusted God.

 

Now, here, we already see the rubber hit the road:

It is easy to say we trust God, but how can we see that trust in our actions?

Where is that trust reflected in our daily living?

Do our lives tell a story of anxiety and worry for the future?

Are our actions driven by fear?

Do we feel trapped in situations?

Do we complain about our lives but talk ourselves out of every idea for change?

 

I imagine most of us aren’t so different from Abraham.  God has planted dreams and visions in our hearts.  God has placed desires.

…Now, you may have to really dig deep to remember,…but do you remember being so on-fire about an idea? …so stirred up for a cause? …so passionate about something??

Do you remember being filled with a vision for your future?

Have you heard God say that your life meant something?

…that it matters?

…that it’s important?

 

God operates this way.  Remember Joseph?  God gave Joseph a dream – in which all the stars bowed down to him.

But do you remember?  When Joseph told his brothers the dream, they were plain pissed off!  They had a very “uppity” brother, it seemed to them!  They would put him in his place…the bottom of a hole, …and then a slave to the highest bidder!

 

And so we are afraid – “what will others think!  I must have a big head!  Who am I to ever do anything important?!”

How many times have we cowered in shame and self-deprecation… rather than believe the call of God on our lives?

 

But…

say we believe it.

Say in the core of who we are, we believe what God has said to us…

Then what? 

Do we tuck it away in a safe place where no one can discover it?..hurt it…ridicule it???

Do we then safely wait and secretly hope the dream will somehow fall into our laps?

 

Do we follow and do what the Lord has planted and placed in our hearts to do?

Or do we let it fade and die into numb forgetfulness?…hidden, safe, dead.

 

Let’s say, we not only believe what God’s said to us, but we follow

Then what happens?

Everyone, and our mother, may think we gone off the deep end.  Noah’s neighbors likely had the Department of Social Services on the line, ready to intervene.  Abram’s family was likely grumbling and complaining, worried about where they’d find water, or grass for the animals, or safety in foreign lands.  Had Abram shared God’s promises to him with others, I imagine it would have made for much late-night banter, …especially in light of his childlessness and what-not… “A Father of many nations!?  And at the age of 99!”  How do you think Joseph’s master or later his prison-mates would have responded if he shared his dream with them?  Perhaps they’d have thought him arrogant, or audacious, or crazy, or naïve.

We don’t respond well to folks who “hear God talk to them.”

We’re comfortable enough believing that people heard God’s voice in the stories of the Bible, but if anyone we know hears God’s voice, we pick it apart…

“Was that reeaaally God’s voice?”

“What if you were just hearing what you wanted to hear?”

“Perhaps you’re deceiving yourself.”

 

Just believing God’s word to us is daunting.  Now following it – hanging our very lives on it – in public…now that’s a very different thing.  That takes a whole new level of courage, resolve, and trust.  …simply because of the opposition we will face,… often from our loved ones…and sometimes also from ourselves:

“Was that really God’s voice?”

“Did I imagine that?”

“What if I’m wrong?”

 

Now as Abram is on the road, following God’s call, we begin to see Abram wrestling with the details of what God’s promise means and what it looks like to follow and to get there.

Abram has it in his head that his wife is so beautiful that folks will kill him, in order to take her.

We don’t know how true this may be…but we do read that at least 2 different kings think she’s so beautiful, they take her into their homes to make her their wives.  This all plays out because Abram makes Sarai swear to say she’s his sister – hoping that those who might otherwise covet his wife and kill him to get her, will rather consider him an ally in getting her hand for marriage.  It’s not a brilliant plan; I don’t think Abram really wants to share his wife with these others, but frankly, he’s scared to death.  He’s terrified that if they don’t lie about her being his wife, folks will kill him to get her!

…and he may be right.

So they lie.

 

Was this what God wanted?  Was this necessary?

God had promised Abram that he would make of him a great nation.  Clearly a dead Abram couldn’t make a great nation.  One could then reason that Abram didn’t need to lie – that he could be honest and God would protect him.

…But one could also reason, that it was by Abram’s lying that God protected him….

We just don’t know!

 

And in our lives,…we just don’t know.

 

I’ve had a far easier time in my life, trust God – that He is good and loves me.  What I find far harder to trust is myself!

I may make a mistake, as I try to follow God!

What if I lie, like Abram did, when God wanted me to tell the truth?

What if I sleep with my servant, in order to have the child God has promised me – when God wanted me to have that child with my wife?

 

Part of trusting God, involves trusting that God is big enough for all our mistakes.

 

Notice the scripture:

            Trust in the Lord, with all your heart,

And lean not on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge God,

And God will direct your paths.

 

It doesn’t say, “In all your ways, get it right, and God will direct your paths.”

It says, “In all your ways, acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.”

 

God wants us to trust

with childlike faith

and to not hang our hat, at the end of the day, on what we can see and predict and understand.

 

God wants us to follow

hand in hand

and trust God to handle everything that comes our way,

including US! – our mistakes, our misunderstandings, our everything.

 

Abraham did not always “get it right.”  For a man of great faith, he also was rational and strategic.  He knew how to stay alive as a foreigner in a foreign land, with a beautiful, coveted wife.  He knew how to negotiate with kings and win the favor of strangers.  Abraham reasoned that his aging, childless wife, might not be the one through whom God planned to make a great nation…..perhaps his slave would do – she could bear him a son!

Abraham didn’t know when to do what, but when God spoke, he believed God, and followed.

He had a heart that trust in the Lord.

 

And that is all God asks.

 

Our God is a God who wants to bless us!  Our God wants us to enjoy our days and our lot!

And God knows that we cannot enjoy when we are fearful,

or worried,

or doubting.

God knows that we cannot enjoy life, when we are reaching outside of ourselves and our abilities, trying to play God with our own lives and the lives of others.

God knows that our blessing and joy will only be complete when we

Acknowledge that God is God and we are not,

And trust God to do what only God can.

 

 

God is God, and we are not.

What God asks is that we trust, like a child

Leaning on God, like a child

Acknowledging God, in everything we do…

 

And God will be faithful to make our paths straight, to lead us into the promised land, to fulfill the word God has spoken over us in God’s own time, to realize the vision God has planted in our hearts.

 

God is God, and we are not.

 

We are God’s children! 

May we put our hand in God’s

and in-JoY this beauuutiful ride,

the life Christ has given us!