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“Greater Works Than These”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 9:36-43
John 14:12-14

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

John 14:12-14

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”


 

Just last Sunday, we read about how Peter, having just been through an emotional marathon following Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, has retreated to the sea to fish and has led 6 other disciples in doing the same.  This fishing expedition doesn’t go well.  They catch nothing, but the risen Christ meets them on the shoreline with hot fish and warm bread, strait from the fire.  The whole encounter ends with Jesus repeatedly asking Peter whether or not Peter loves him.  Each time Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” but each time Jesus responds by saying “Feed/Tend my sheep.”

It seems as though Jesus is trying to break through the disconnect between Peter’s affections and his actions.  Peter feels love for Christ, but his actions are less that of a disciple and more reflective of the man he used to be, before he met Christ.  Jesus is challenging Peter to live his love and devotion in service to others – not returning to his former life but continuing his discipleship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

So in today’s passage, we finally see Peter DOING the work of a disciple of Christ.  In fact this story, along with several other stories of Peter and the early church, neatly reflects stories that came out of Jesus’ life.  Just as Jesus raised a girl from the dead, so Peter raises this faithful disciple from death.  Just as Jesus heals a paralytic man, so Peter heals a paralyzed man.  Peter is DOING the work of discipleship!

This Peter, who was once looking wistfully back at the fishing life, is now all in.

And I find this very encouraging.

 

We know that Peter was not an educated man.  Luke reports that the religious leaders of the day found Peter ordinary – such that they were amazed as how he taught them with authority and performed deeds of power among the people.  Peter was an ordinary guy.  He was rash and a bit impulsive.  He liked to fish naked, and the sea was a source of comfort to him.  He spoke before he thought.  He couldn’t always follow through with his intentions.  When Jesus was in custody before his eventual crucifixion, Peter denies Jesus 3 times, in order to save his own skin.

And it is this Peter who Christ calls and uses to spread the Good News of Great Joy.

This Peter.

 

Though he has failed over and over, Jesus lovingly pursues him, and keeps calling Peter to follow.  Now, Peter’s words and his actions are finally starting to match.  Peter’s faith is finally taking shape in works.  He chooses to leave Christ’s presence, not just a hearer but a doer.  Peter chooses to tend the sheep – to shepherd God’s people, to lead others in doing good and not in turning back.

 

In the Gospel of John we heard these words of Jesus:  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me[e] for anything, I will do it.”

Jesus is explaining that we will do greater things than he did – precisely because Jesus will be with God, hearing our prayers and giving us what we ask.

This is hard to believe.  It sounds too genie-in-a-bottle for us.  It sounds too anecdotal to be true.  And yet, in the person of Peter, we see an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And I would assert that God is calling you and I to do great things by the power of the Spirit.

 

Do you look around and think – we need a miracle!

Do you look around and think – how can we begin to fix the messes we are making?!

Does each new grim report simply pile onto your already-mounting-stack of tragedies-with-no-answers?

 

Well, good.

Perhaps God has made you, for such a time as this.

Perhaps God is using you to do even greater works by the power of the Spirit…

Perhaps God has given you eyes to see the mess, so you can be a part of the solution.

After all, Christ said we will do greater things than he did!

 

We are not alone.  God is not finished with us yet.  There is more to this world than we can see or perceive.  And Christ is still at work, doing miracles, turning tables, raising the dead, healing the sick.  Christ hears our prayers.

 

We do not pretend to control God.

We do not pretend to understand why God acts and does not act, why God heals some and not others.  We do not pretend to know why some suffer all their lives and others seem to walk such an easy road.

And yet,

Paul encourages us to pray without ceasing.  “Cast all your cares upon the Lord, for God cares for you.”  And “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective,” scripture reminds us.

 

Therefore,

in all things,…

as we face enormous obstacles to justice and equity,

as we stare down the mountains between us and where we need to go

as we face off against the darkness within ourselves and one another,

May we remember that Christ, who raised Lazarus from the dead, lives in you and in me.

May we remember that the One who made heaven and earth and fashioned you and me has called us precious and beloved.

May we remember that there is more to this life than we can see.

And may we call on Christ,

Interceding on behalf of our brothers and sisters,

Crying out to God in the face of injustice,

Sharing what we have with one another,

…..DOING the work of discipleship. 

 

Who knows what mighty work Christ may do,

in you and in me!

 

“Blind Sight”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Kings 17:1-16
Luke 4:16-30

 

1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

 

Luke 4:16-30

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.


 

I love this passage about Jesus in the synagogue at his home town.  I love the passage he reads from Isaiah.  That passage has always resonated with me.

But this passage is loaded.  One minute Jesus is reading from the scroll of Isaiah and the next he is evading an angry mob of the villagers he grew up with, who are leading him out of town and to the edge of the cliff, that they might hurl him off it.

This is serious stuff.

 

What made them so angry?  Jesus has said so little.

But has he?

 

First off, after reading the part of Isaiah about how God’s Spirit is upon him to do all these good things, Jesus boldly says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled, in your hearing.”  Jesus is essentially claiming God’s power and presence with him to do good works among them.  Jesus is speaking the truth.

Everywhere else, folks are saying as much about him.  Everywhere he goes, folks are amazed at God’s presence in him, God’s works through him, God’s Word spoken to them.  But here, the crowd is harder to impress.  Still, at first, they are enjoying his words and feeling quite pleased.  But only a sentence or two more, and the whole dynamic shifts.

And why?  Jesus’ own explanation is that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown.

And why is that?

I think it’s because we think we know the person.  We think we have them figured out.  There is not mystery.  There is no wonder.  We know who their parents are.  We know all their siblings.  We’ve been to their house.  What’s there to get so excited about?!?

 

Well, perhaps Jesus’ words so far wouldn’t have gotten him killed.  Perhaps they would have.  He’s definitely claiming to be a prophet, at the very least.  But it doesn’t sound blasphemous to them, as it would in later days.  No, I think what got this crowd all riled up is in the words that come next.  Jesus says,

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Here, Jesus alludes to two Old Testament stories.  These are scriptures the people would have known well.  Most likely these Israelite listeners would have heard them and wondered at God’s mighty works through this most famous prophet Elijah.  But Jesus points to another thread in these stories:  the fact that the beneficiaries of God’s mighty acts were all OUTSIDE the nation of Israel, people from Lebanon and Syria.

The widow of Sidon (current-day Lebanon) and the leper from Syria are the beneficiaries of God’s mighty acts here through Elijah, not any of the many lepers or widows from among the people of Israel.  Jesus hones in on this point.  And without words, the offense is palpable.  Jesus seems to directly point out the lack of faith of the people of Israel, and particularly his own hometown.  Instead Jesus is lifting up outsiders as models of faith.

The author of Hebrews has defined faith as,

“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

 

These hometown neighbors have known Jesus, his whole life.  They think they know him.   And so they have no faith.   And their lack of faith means that Jesus cannot perform any acts or wonders among them.  They are not in a position to believe or receive the working of God, standing in their midst.  And all because they think they see.  They think they know. 

 

Just as with Elijah, others are benefitting from God’s mighty works, because they have come in hope and faith.  They have come open.  They have come seeking.

And GOD meets them.

 

We are a community of faith.  We come from many different walks of life.  We come from different backgrounds and faith experiences.  Some of us are brand new to this place.  Others of us have been here since we were born.

But we all come to faith,

We all come to community,

We all come to church,

With our set of baggage.

 

Many of us have “been there, done that” so much, that we are sure we can predict an outcome with a fair amount of certainty.

But do we also realize that our predictions,

Can seal our fate?

Do we also realize that our foresight,

Can restrict our outcomes.

Do we also realize that our SEEING,

Can be our blindness?

 

In life, the ability to predict outcomes can protect us from many things.  It has in fact probably kept us alive until this point.

But reducing our lives of faith to natural, human outcomes completely eliminates God from the mix.  Assessing the situation using the facts and circumstances we can see, leaves out the possibility of what GOD may do

THERE IS ALWAYS MORE TO THINGS THAN WE CAN SEE.

 

So will we be those

Who stand in the presence of the living God

Closed, and certain, and offended?

 

Or will we be like the Lebanese woman and Syrian man,

Seeking

Open

Watching

Waiting

Hoping for God.

 

Can we be a people, ever mindful that there is more to this life than we can see

Ever mindful that there is more to God than we can know

Ever mindful that there is more going on that we can perceive…

 

And will we be a people hoping and expecting, watching and waiting for God to show up?

And shake things up

And leave us amazed?

…In our lives

And in this place?

 

When the voice of God calls to us,

As it did through Elijah to that Lebanese widow gathering sticks to cook her final meal,

     Will we have ears to hear?

Will we dare to hope?

Will we take the leap of faith?

 

Who will we be? 

“The In-Breaking of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 1:5-20, 24-25
Luke 1:39-45
Luke 1:57-79

Luke 1:5-20, 24-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:57-79

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


 

Luke’s portrayal of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the words she spoke by the Holy Spirit are rare.  Of all the names mentioned in the Bible, only between 5.5 – 8% are thought to have been female, and of those, only half have their words recorded.

This means that at most, less than 5% of individuals spoken of in the Bible are women whose words are remembered.  This is significant, because it makes these words of Mary, very special.

 

What possessed Luke to include these details in his story?  Of all the Gospel writers, Luke alone includes these details of the story.  Luke alone gives us insight into Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s journey and Mary’s journey alongside them.   And as if recording Mary’s words was not enough to make his readers sit up and listen with surprise, Zechariah, the only male in this section of story, is made mute because of his unbelief when the angel told him that his aging and barren wife would bear a son.

So we have the entire first chapter of Luke unfolding very unusual dialogue.  First we have Zechariah being met by an angel, and then we have Mary met by an angel.  Zechariah disbelieves and so is made mute.  Mary believes and is filled with words by the Holy Spirit.  And so the very first long string of spoken word is that of Mary.  Mary’s words.  Mary’s song.  And it is not until John is born and Zechariah names him according to the angel’s instruction that Zechariah’s tongue is freed and he too begins to speak by the Holy Spirit.  Zechariah’s prophecy.

 

Luke opens his entire gospel story with the words of a woman and a muted man.

 

THIS is not going to be your usual story.

THIS is the kind of story where everything is topsy turvy.

THIS is the kind of story where God’s Kingdom crashes into our reality, making things right.

 

Those who are too high and lifted up shall be made low.

Those who are too low and wrongfully despised are lifted up.

Those who are hungry shall be filled.

The meek and virgin bears God’s child.

The barren woman bears a son.

 

God is flipping the world as we know it on its head.  God is making wrong things right.  God gives the young, unmarried, virgin, pregnant girl a voice.  God takes voice from one in power when he does not believe.

 

And so, in every possible way, this story starts out gripping, unusual, radical, and unbelievable.  The reader in Luke’s day KNOWS that this is not your ordinary story.  The reader is Luke’s day is jarred out of the lull of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, in-breaking of God.

The virgin is pregnant.

The barren will bear a son.

The man of the house is mute.

A girl is filled with the Holy Spirit.

GOD is breaking in.  

 

And Luke sees this extraordinary breaking with the-way-that-things-are-done,

these curious coincidences,

these miracles,

and he lays before us each remarkable nugget

so that we too might see

take note,

sit up,

and be amazed!

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

These words of Zechariah and those of Mary speak to the dawning of a new age.  The old rules will not apply.  The old script is out the window.  It is NOT same-ole, same-ole.  GOD is doing something new.  GOD is breaking in.  GOD is keeping God’s promise to the people of Israel and the whole world.

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.” Isaiah writes,
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

 

Christ is coming, and for those who see it, nothing will be the same. 

 

Our Lord comes.

It springs forth,

Shining a light on all who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…

 

Do you perceive it?