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April 11 - “Walking in the Light ” - Elder Michael Barron
Prayer of Illumination: O Lord our God, your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
Introduction to text: Our Scripture is not necessarily written by John, although it bears his name. Some believe it is a meditation or a collective of homilies and messages from several people following the Gospel of John as it holds several of the same themes as the Gospel.
Text: 1 John 1:1-2:2
“Walking in the Light”
It happened at the end of a job on day as an employee went to inspect the large freezer. Accidentally the door closed, and he was stuck. He knocked desperately on the door, including shouting for help, but nothing helped. It was impossible for anyone to hear him as the employees, since it was the end of the day, had already left for the day. And now, already weakened, and desperate with an unbearable cold, what to do? Then suddenly to door opened. Was it a miracle?
The watchman went into the freezer and found him. She then helped him out of there saving him. The watchman was asked, “What made you open the door to the freezer if that was not a part of your tasks?”
To which she replied,” I have been working for the company a long time. Many employees work here. Everyone enters and leaves passing through the guardhouse. He was one that daily greeted me when he arrived and said goodbye on the way out. I remember him greeting me this morning, but as people left, he hadn’t said goodbye. At first, I thought I must have missed him. But then I imagined that something was wrong. Instinctively I went to look for him and found him. What, to my surprise, was to find him locked in the freezer. I am happy to save a friend and immensely grateful to God.”
What lesson can we learn from this story? One that struck me was we can be a help to someone, but also, we can be helped. We build bonds with people, sometimes special ones that bring us close to each other. This goes to show that this can lead to be the practice of loving one another. Building these relationships brings people together and to the point of rejoicing with those who rejoice and crying with those who cry.
I remember last Easter, the beginning of the pandemic and the shutdowns. Easter Sunday came, and we had to do so differently. It was only Rev. Michael, Lauren, Zac, and Jodi here to worship. We had to think of new and creative ways to remain together as a community. We introduced virtual worship to help us keep those bonds.
With virtual worship we looked at new horizons to help connect to those who may be missing those relationships. I helped where I could by hosting midweek worship. This past year during Lent I asked some questions to ponder, but always included one that asked you to look at yourself and reach out to those people who need connection.
How are our relationships in the family, be it between husband and wife, parents and child, between siblings…between neighbors, friends, or co-workers, maybe different groups in the community? How do we feel and experience fellowship in our community? Does our fellowship also reach those who are far away? Do we seek to integrate them?
It is with these relationships we build community. We build the bonds and follow what Jesus asked us to do…to be in communion with others. The text we read and hear, among other aspects, emphasizes the issue of communion. When we affirm our faith with the Apostle’s Creed mentions the “communion of saints.” This communion is motivated by God. Paul even wrote that this faith comes by preaching the word of Christ (ref. Romans 10:17). Faith in Christ Jesus leads us to fellowship with our sisters and brothers and to experience true love.
Our text also states that “God is light.” In this source we are, like the saints of God, invited to walk in the light and to exhibit this light to the world. It is a manifestation that is expressed by our words and attitudes. The text stresses that if our attitudes are contrary to what we speak, then in fact we will be living in darkness. Without communion with each other, communion with God is simply an appearance.
At the end of this reading, the author is aware that his community is not free from sin but is subject to sin while in this world. For him, it is essential that God is recognized in Jesus and in the fact that he dies for us. Christ on the cross is the source of deliverance from sin. It is the gracious gift of a God who is eager to forgive and thus restore communion between Him and all of us.
As Christians, we not only seek God for personal wholeness and fellowship with Him, but also commitment in the exercise of serving Him, praising him with concrete attitudes of communion with other sisters and brothers, which in turn helps transform reality where we are.
Communion, in the sense of being one, is a great challenge. How do we maintain our communion? How do we prevent members of the community or neighboring communities from distancing and isolating themselves? How do we do so safely?
The community this Scripture is addressing is in turmoil. A different sect of believers is trying to draw away members and followers. Our challenges here in the 21st Century are different. We are dealing still with a pandemic. Some are vaccinated, some are not. Some believe the vaccine will work while others are still skeptical or afraid. How do we recover from this? How do we remain as a community of believers and have normalcy return?
The challenge applies to all of us as Christians, whether we are members, leaders of this church, or even leaders of the larger Church. There are many signs of communion in our communities and in the church. Signs that seek to share joys or sorrows, through prayer in services or in a Facebook post or even an online study group. There is fellowship when we are supported and comforted by the Word.
Sisters and brothers, we know our weaknesses, our failures, and sometimes our lack of authenticity…in short, our sins. But yet, God gave us his Son on the cross to pay for our sins. God in Christ removes sin and recreates an authentic and effective witness in truth and justice.
So, what can we as people, as a community, do to foster and stimulate communion between not only us, but our neighbors, our sisters, and brothers from other churches? Each of us can contribute and help. We start by praying. Praying for the family, the community, the pastors and leaders of each community. Maybe we have initiatives such as a prayer group, bible study, community lunches, when we are able to again. All of these contribute to a good relationship to the community and with what Christ asked us to do…love thy neighbor.
Let us seek purpose and to walk in the light of God, by listening to the Word, by doing everything in our power to maintain communion with each other, by building those bonds once again through sincere words and attitudes just as the employee and the watchman of the freezer did.
March 28 - “Victors in the Midst of Strife ” - Rev. Michael Plank
April 17, 2011
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Philippians 2:8-9 “…he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place…”
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 21:1-11
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that no matter the odds, God’s glory always triumphs, to the end that hearers will find hope in the midst of fear and pain.
Prayer for Illumination: God, as we remember Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the joy people felt at his arrival, and the praises they sang, open our ears to hear you Word to us in this time, in this place. Let it fill us with wonder and inspire us to strive to live as your children in the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Matthew 21:1-11: After many months of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem. He knew, and he had told his disciples, that the day of his crucifixion was not far off. But still, when he entered the city, it was to celebration. Listen for God’s Word.
Philippians 2:5-11: Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was written while he was in prison in Rome. In this morning’s passage he writes of the miracle that our savior was not a bold conqueror, but one who was humble and gracious. Listen for God’s Word.
It was a warm, dusty day, when Jesus and his disciples walked the road to Jerusalem. They could see the Mount of Olives on the horizon, getting closer all the time. The sun was bright and hot, their robes and feet were dry and dirty as they approached the village of Bethphage. When they were only a little way from the village, Jesus said to two of his disciples: “run up ahead to the village. As soon as you get there, you’ll see a donkey, with her colt. They’ll be tied, but untie them and bring them back here. If anyone says anything to you, just say ‘The Lord needs them’ and they’ll let you take them.”
So two disciples ran ahead. They found the donkey. The text doesn’t say whether or not anyone stopped them, but if anyone did, their reply must have worked, because they returned to the group with a donkey. They put their cloaks over it as riding blankets and Jesus saddled up.
They got closer and closer to Jerusalem when they began to see people coming out to the road. The people who came out started removing their cloaks and laying them directly in their path. Others who weren’t wearing cloaks cut palm branches and lay them out instead. The people of Jerusalem were gradually and quietly rolling out the red carpet for Jesus.
It seemed awkward at first, walking on peoples’ perfectly good cloaks while the crowds whispered and pointed, but then someone shouted out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And someone else shouted “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” In no time the shouts were taken up by more people, and more people still, like a slow clap in the movies, until the disciples were overwhelmed by hosannas and blessings being shouted out everywhere you turned your head.
It started slowly, but now the people were ecstatic. They’d heard of Jesus’ teachings and healings, and now that he had come to Jerusalem, they welcomed him with open arms; with more than open arms, with a parade! A festival! A party! Though he was on a sweating, stinking donkey, dusty from his travels, and traveling with these other road-weary companions, he entered like a king. He entered to cheers and celebrating; to jubilant faces and open arms.
The disciples were completely caught up. The energy of the crowd was contagious. They were waving and laughing, jumping and cheering with everyone else. At least at first. But then I wonder if their joyous mood was spoiled. I wonder if their gladness soured. I wonder if fear crept into their hearts. I imagine they must have remembered what Jesus had said only days earlier:
We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified (Matthew 20:17-19).
They remembered those words and though they were rejoicing on the outside, deep inside a terrible fear began to gnaw at them. Because they were in Jerusalem now. And any Jew who had spent any time traveling the roads of Roman Palestine had seen crucifixions. There probably were worse ways to die, but not many. Crucifixion was brutal. And Jesus said that once they got to Jerusalem, his crucifixion wasn’t far off. So understandably, and despite the joy and triumph of Jesus’ entrance into the city, I would bet that they began to be afraid.
One of the most powerful things for me about Holy Week is how closely it mirrors our own journeys through life. I’ve preached a lot about God’s grace in times of desolation, but of course we have times of triumph and joy too: days like Palm Sunday. But for many of us, even on those days we find ourselves, like the disciples, afraid. Not consumed by fear maybe, not crippled by fear, not even overwhelmed by fear, but perhaps it’s still there.
Spring is here. Covid case rates in our area are down. Vaccination rates are up. Restrictions are slowly being eased. Here we are, back in person, worshiping together again. It almost feels like we’re back to normal. But we’re not. The vaccine isn’t a savior for the world – we don’t know yet how long it’s effective, it seems like if you’re vaccinated you can still transmit covid, like any new medication there are fears of long-term side effects, this isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. Fear still lurks beneath the surface.
What if I have an adverse reaction to the vaccine? What if it doesn’t work for me? It’s 94-95% effective, but what if I’m in that 5-6% where it’s not? What if the virus mutates and I give it to my kids? What if this wave of vaccines doesn’t kill it off completely and we have to do this all over again next year? We’re excited and hopeful, because things look good, but at the same time, we know we’re not out of the woods yet, and there can be monsters in the woods.
The excitement and fear that the disciples must have felt is easy to gloss over. We don’t like to think about the very real hardships in life. We ignore them, brush them aside, and push them down. We like Palm Sunday, and we like Easter, but the rest of the week isn’t nearly as much fun. Thursday night, when we remember the last supper, is also a remembrance of doubt and betrayal, and Friday is bleak all over. Church attendance is at its highest in almost every church on Christmas Eve and Easter, but on those more solemn days… in the midst of Holy Week, we don’t want to go to church to be reminded of suffering. I remember the church where I did my internship in Chicago had an Easter attendance of over 100. On that Maundy Thursday, there were 5.
I remember hearing a sermon once that was talking about “sunshine theology.” The idea that our spiritual journey is always happy, that if we pray hard enough, God will answer all our prayers and bless us with good fortune – as if God were some kind of genie; the idea that if you talk about fear or pain or suffering, you’re just being a pessimist. This preacher quoted the movie A Few Good Men in which Tom Cruise, a lawyer, is examining Jack Nicholson, a military officer. Tom Cruise says “I want the truth!” And Jack Nicholson responds “You can’t handle the truth!” Well there are a lot of us who can’t handle the truth.
The truth is that there is suffering in the world. The truth is that there is uncertainty. The truth is that there is evil. The truth is that there is pain, injustice, disease, death, despair, and senseless tragedy. The truth is that every one of us faces loss. Every one of us faces pain. Every one of us faces unseen difficulty.
We will not all suffer betrayal as Christ did. One of those closest to him sold him out. The rest of his friends and confidants could not be bothered to even stay awake as he faced the most difficult night of his life. And even the one who explicitly promised to stand by him to the end, denied even knowing him. We will not all be arrested, beaten, or handed over to corrupt officials on trumped-up charges. We will not all be publicly humiliated and killed.
But we know, like the disciples knew, that things come in cycles. As inevitable as it is that all times of tragedy and pain will eventually come to an end, it is as inevitable that tragedy and pain will be faced by all of us. That is the truth.
But it is not the only truth. On Palm Sunday, in the midst of the festive mood, the disciples feared the truth that they knew was coming. Jesus and the disciples did enter Jerusalem to rejoicing and celebration, that is true. Jesus was hurt and grieving and probably afraid in the garden on Thursday night, that is true. He was betrayed and abandoned by those closest to him and then arrested, that is true. He was beaten, whipped, and nailed to a cross, that is true. He bowed his head and died, that is true. He was placed in a tomb, that is true.
The truth is that pain and loss are real and they are inevitable. But the truth is also that God’s triumph is every bit as real and every bit as inevitable. If you are at your lowest today, I am here to tell you that because Christ rose from the grave, you can be assured that things will get better. If you are at your highest today but are fearful that there is suffering on the horizon, I can tell you that because Christ rose from the grave, you have the strength to persevere through any fear, pain, or suffering that is to come. And if you are somewhere in the middle, suffering but not broken, hurt but not hopeless, surrounded, but not yet overwhelmed, by strife, I am here to tell you that with Christ we are victors in the midst of strife.
Because what is also true is that Holy Week doesn’t end on Friday. It doesn’t end with Jesus’ body being lowered from the cross on Friday night. It doesn’t end with Jesus in the tomb on Saturday. Because on Sunday morning the women came to the tomb and found the stone had been rolled away, and that is true. They entered and found not Jesus, but an angel who said “the man you’re looking for is not here,” and that is true. As they left the tomb Jesus appeared to them, not in a vision, not in a memory, but alive and in the flesh, and that is true. Holy Week doesn’t end with Jesus’ death, it ends with his triumph over death and his rise to everlasting life, and that is true.
When we find ourselves hopeful, but not unafraid on the Palm Sundays in our lives, we know that next Sunday, the cross stands empty. When we feel hopeless and betrayed on the Maundy Thursdays in our lives we remember that the week’s not over yet. And when we find ourselves in the crushing darkness of the Good Fridays in our lives, we know that on Easter Sunday, the Death we thought was invincible tasted defeat for the very first time at the hands of Jesus of Nazareth.
Pain and loss happen, fear will threaten to break us, strife will surround us, but through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, we will find ourselves to be the victors. Amen.
March 21 - “A New Morning” - Rev. Michael Plank
5th Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“A New Morning”
Text: Jeremiah 31:31 “‘The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’”
Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God’s forgiveness is unconditional to the end that hearers will find hope in the fact that God’s grace makes all things new.
Prayer for Illumination: God of grace and love, we come here this morning embodying the spectrum of the human condition. Some of us feel broken, some feel whole. Let your Word speak to all of us where we are, and give us the wisdom to understand it. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Jeremiah 31:31-34: The prophet Jeremiah wrote, like all prophets, to condemn the sins of his culture and to warn of the consequences of such sins. But he also offered hope, and told his people that their suffering would not be eternal. Listen for God’s Word.
When I was in college and seminary, a good friend and I have took a couple of survival trips, one of which was for his bachelor party. He somehow was able to convince 10 other people to go on this trip as well. We would go to the Ozarks in Missouri, to a wilderness area, and spend two nights there. These were the rules: we could, and should, bring water, a knife, the clothes on our backs, and we should wear a good pair of boots. We were also permitted one luxury item each. The luxury item could not be something that could directly be used to get food – no guns, no fishing poles, no arrows – and no outside food was allowed. A few days before we planned to leave, the rules were amended to allow us each to bring a tarp, since heavy rain was forecast for the duration of our adventure.
The morning of the trip came and we set off into the wilderness. Luxury items included a video camera, a saw, rope, and a cast iron skillet, which I thought was optimistic and heavy. It started raining immediately. So we hiked in the rain for a few hours until we found a good spot to camp and my friend and I set to building a shelter. We built a frame with sticks and rope and then spread a tarp over the top and sides of it and buried the edges of the tarp so water wouldn’t seep in. There was only about 2 feet of clearance under our roof, so we had to crawl in and out of our shelter, but it was dry.
We got a fire started with flint and steel, though with how wet it was it took us nearly an hour. We ate acorns and boiled river snails in the skillet, which came in handy after all. And one cheater who brought a fishing pole caught a small sunfish. We cleaned it and cooked it whole and shared the 2 ounces of meat among the 12 of us. Night came and we went to bed tired, wet, and hungry, which was about what we had expected. All told, the day did not go too poorly.
But the night was a different story. There’s no bad situation that can’t be made worse by putting it in the dark. Our shelter was small and cramped and the ground was lumpy and uncomfortable. A large slug fell off our tarp and onto my face at one point. Several bugs crawled over my hands in the night. It was chilly, and it began to rain again, and though we stayed dry, the night seemed endless. The dark, sleepless minutes and hours crawled by.
Our discomfort with darkness stretches back throughout our history as humans. When we lived in camps, huddled around fires, there was no telling what predators or enemies might be lurking in the shadows, able to see us but invisible to our eyes. As children we are scared of monsters in closets or under the bed. As we grow older our fear might transform to a fear of ghosts. As we become adults our monsters and ghosts may become intruders and burglars. And as we grow older still, we may put all those things behind us and be left only with our doubts, guilt, and grief to haunt us in the shadows.
But there is something profoundly and unspeakably frightening about darkness on some primal level. Which of course is why darkness is used as a metaphor to describe anguish and suffering: “I’m in a dark place.” St. John of the Cross wrote a treatise about his feelings of separation from God which he called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” William Ernest Henley began his immortal poem “Invictus” with the words “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole.”
We understand darkness as describing that condition when all seems lost, all seems hopeless. You all saw, I’m sure, that there was another mass shooting – this time targeting women of Asian heritage in Atlanta. And I’m sure you’ve heard too that violence and harassment against people of Asian descent in this country is rearing its head at rates not seen in decades. It’s yet another glimpse of racism run rampant. It’s a dark time in many ways.
Leading up to, during, and immediately following the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah was filled with such despair and anguish. In fact, it is he who is credited with writing the book of Lamentations: a book of only five chapters, but one that tells of horrifying grief, the kind of grief experienced by parents who lose children, or by refugees who have experienced the decimation of all they know and love.
Jerusalem had been under siege for four months. People were dying of starvation and being captured or killed by the Babylonians as they tried to flee the city. In the fifth month, King Nebuchadnezzar decided to send in his imperial army. They came to Jerusalem and sacked it. They burned the Temple, the royal palace, every important building, all the houses in the city. The army destroyed the walls of the city and looted the Temple, taking the ceremonial bronze pillars, the enormous bronze depiction of the ocean, the 12 bronze bulls which held it up, the lamp stands and bowls, the sacred oils, they even took the wick trimmers. Every sacred item that was made of bronze or silver or gold was taken to be melted down by the invading army.
In the book of Lamentations, the author describes the darkness in which the people found themselves:
[The fall of Jerusalem] was astounding; there was none to comfort her. “Look, O Lord, on my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed.’ The enemy laid hands on all her treasures; she saw pagan nations enter her sanctuary – those you had forbidden to enter your assembly… “I called to my allies but they betrayed me. My priests and my elders perished in the city while they searched for food to keep themselves alive.” …“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me?” (Lamentations 1).
And then Jeremiah descends into the place where so many of us find ourselves when we are in darkness: “The Lord has brought [Jerusalem] grief because of her many sins… my suffering that was inflicted on me, that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger…” (Lamentations 1). In times of deep despair or suffering or tragedy, in times when we find ourselves in that dark night of the soul, how often do we find guilt creeping up on us? How often do we believe that we could have done something different, something better, something which would have prevented our suffering?
When parents lose a child they nearly always think there was more they could have done; if they could have prevented them from getting into the situation where they died their child would still be alive. Or if they don’t think that, many parents feel guilty that they did not love their child enough, or that they didn’t care for that child enough, or protect it well enough.
And when we ourselves are suffering from disease or injury or loss or abandonment, how many times do we ask ourselves in some secret place, on some deep level: “am I being punished? Do I deserve this? Is this because of my sins? Is this because I lack faith? Is this because I have turned away from God?”
And so many times that’s just our own fears and inadequacies talking, but sometimes we do have a hand in it. Any time there’s a mass shooting, any time racism lifts its head in ways so big and obvious we can’t pretend like it’s not there, I always feel a smack of that. I always feel like there’s more that I could have done. There are more comments I could have addressed, more relationships I could have built, more justice I could have done. In our darkness we feel our guilt most presently, we feel our doubts and our fears, our pains and our anguish. In darkness the possibilities for evil seem endless and invincible.
But Jeremiah speaks hope to us. In the time of Moses, the covenant God made with the Israelites included a provision that the people would obey completely the Word of God, and suffer consequences if they did not. But through Jeremiah, God tells us of a new covenant. This new covenant is simpler. We do, try as we might, add to the brokenness in our world. But God knows that we cannot live up to perfection, try as we might. And so the new covenant God announces is simply this: “I will be their God, and they will be my people… I will remember their sins no more” (31:33, 34).
In the new covenant we are offered freedom from guilt and pain and suffering because our sins are forgiven. We are given a clean slate, a new chapter. God does not punish us for our shortfalls, God is still our God and we are still claimed as God’s people. That claim is irrevocable and irreversible. It means that we belong, that we are loved, that even in our deepest anguish God reaches through our tragedy to embrace us. A light shines through our darkness and we realize that in God we have found a new day.
After that long night camping, the morning dawned bright and dry and full of hope. After a night of anguish, the morning brings fresh perspective. After a night of terror, the morning brings peace. After a night of sorrow, the morning brings an opportunity for celebration. After a night of loneliness, the morning brings us one day closer to the time when we will be lonely no more. After a night of hopelessness, the morning brings the affirmation that we will make it through one more day. Our darkness is made light in the new covenant and we find, yet again, a new morning. A new dawn. A new day. A new start.
And so we watch and pray for that new morning. That hopeful morning. That joyful morning. That happy morning when our pain is wiped away, when our tears are dried, and when our sorrows are relieved. Amen.
March 14 - “Whoever Believes” - Rev. Michael Plank
4th Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Scripture Lessons: John 3:14-21
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that belief in Christ brings about phenomenal resilience to the end that hearers will be assured that with Christ they can weather any storm.
Prayer for Illumination: God of all knowledge and creativity, open our minds and hearts this morning as we hear your Word. Illumine our understanding and inspire us to do your will. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
John 3:14-21: One night a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus. He believed that Jesus was sent from God, but came to learn more about him. Listen for God’s Word as Jesus responds to his questions.
The nation of Israel had been in the wilderness far too long. The sun was hot, the ground was dry. They had been wandering for years. Clearly Moses had no idea where they were going. Wherever you looked, you could see barren, hostile land for miles, but nothing fertile, nothing green, nothing that promised rest or relaxation. Only further hardship.
There were over two million people who followed Moses into the wilderness. Standing in rows of ten people, with the rows pressed as close to each other as possible, the line of Israelites would have stretched for at least 45 miles: from here to Schenectady, an unbroken line of human beings. Forty-five miles of disgruntled, hot, tired, hungry, thirsty people. And of course they would have had to have carried tents, cooking instruments, clothing, ropes, and tools. And they would have brought livestock. The mass that wandered through the desert was enormous.
They ran out of food, but God provided for them. God sent manna to them: a miraculous food that provided for every one of their nutritional needs. But they began to complain of eating nothing but manna, so God sent quail. The Israelites ran out of water, so God showed Moses where to bring water from solid stone in the desert. Time and again there was in-fighting and rebellion. Time and again the Israelites forgot the incredible grace God showed them in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and even complained and said “Things were better in Egypt, at least there we had food and shelter.” They felt that they were cursed by God, doomed to wander forever.
And then came the snakes. Poisonous snakes infested the camps. They burrowed under sleeping mats, they crawled into baskets, they nested in tent folds. And when they were disturbed or stepped on or approached, they would strike. The text says that “many Israelites died” (Numbers 21:6). The number must have been quite high indeed if the contingent of 2 million people who died would be called “many.” The Israelites, and certainly the author of the book of Numbers, believed that these snakes were a punishment for the people’s sins. So they came to Moses and they begged him to pray for them. So Moses pleaded with God and asked that God take away the snakes from the Israelites.
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived (vv. 8-9).
I think a really interesting thing to note here though is that God did not remove the danger. Instead, God offered the Israelites a way to be saved from that danger. The snake became a symbol for the people of God’s help. And when they looked at that symbol, they remembered what it meant and they turned toward God, who then continued to protect them and provide for them.
That was a powerful symbol. One that’s very similar to what is called the Rod of Asclepius, who was the Greek God of healing and medicine. To this day, the symbol of a snake wrapped around a pole is used by over 60% of professional healthcare associations in the United States. Interestingly enough, the Caduceus – which is a winged rod wrapped with two snakes, which is sometimes used in medical professions – is used by mistake. It is the symbol of Hermes, the God of tricksters, thieves, and commerce.
The rod with a single snake however, has been a well-known symbol of healing, and in many cultures divine healing, for centuries. But that symbol by itself, is not what healed the Israelites. And God did not take them out of harm’s way. But God offered them salvation from harm. And so when they looked on the bronze serpent which was wrapped around the pole, they would live, because it was a symbol of God’s grace. They would look on it and remember to turn their hearts to God and God would save them.
Thousands of years later, we meet this Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was an expert on the Scriptures. He knew them inside and out, backward and forward. He knew the lineages of the heroes and heroines of the Bible. He knew the Mosaic Law. He knew the stories of his people as they grew from obscurity and into the chosen people of the Almighty God. He was well-familiar with the story of the Bronze Serpent, though discussing it was not his motivation for visiting Jesus.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Nicodemus believed that there was something to this Jesus. Prophets and preachers came and went, but Nicodemus was convinced that this one was different, that maybe, just maybe, this one truly was from God. And so he came to Jesus to find out more. He found that Jesus knew as much about Scripture as any Pharisee, that he had interpretations of Scripture every bit as brilliant, and often even more so, than the Chief Priests. This was truly a man who was extraordinary.
They talked theology late into the night, and then Jesus referenced the story of the Bronze Serpent and said, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (vv. 14-16).
Jesus firmly linked the serpent on a pole with his impending crucifixion. At first glance, this seems a weak comparison at best. But the significance was not lost on Nicodemus. The serpent on a pole was raised up before the people so that whoever was in danger would look at it, be reminded of God’s grace, turn to God, and be saved. If Jesus were to function in that same way, then whatever he was raised up on would become a symbol every bit as powerful: not of the elimination of peril, but of a promise of salvation from peril.
John 3:16 is often mistakenly recited as “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life.” That is not what the text says. It says “whoever believes in him shall not perish.” That might seem like arguing semantics, because after all, perish is regularly used as a euphemism for death, both in English and in Greek, the language in which the gospels were written. But both English and Greek have a separate verb which means “to die.” In Greek it is the word ἀποθνῄσκω. But Jesus instead uses the word ἀπόλλυμι which is best translated as “to perish” when referring to people or “to be ruined” when referring to objects.
The dictionary gives four definitions for the word “perish,” the first being “to die.” The second though is “to pass away or disappear.” The third is “to suffer destruction or ruin.” And the fourth is “to suffer spiritual death.” Jesus does not say that if we believe in him we shall not die, or that if we believe in him we are safe from all harm. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness prayed for the snakes to be taken away, we might ask for peril to be removed from us. But just as God didn’t take the snakes away from the Israelites, God does not always remove us from peril. But God gives us a symbol of hope in the cross.
And just like the bronze serpent, it is not the symbol which saves, but what the symbol represents. Centuries after Moses, people began to worship the bronze serpent itself and it became such a powerful idol that King Hezekiah had it destroyed to prevent people from turning away from God once again. And it is always valuable to remember that it is not the two pieces of wood on the wall that save us. It is what those pieces of wood represent.
They represent Christ’s promise that whoever believes in him will never perish. Not that we will never die, because each of us will die one day. Not that we will never suffer, because each of us has suffered and will suffer again. Not that there will never be pain, because there will be emotional and physical pain in our lives. But Christ’s promise is that despite death and suffering and pain, we will never pass away. We will never disappear. We will never be destroyed. We will never be ruined. We will never suffer a spiritual death.
To see the Truth of that promise, you need only look at the long list of martyrs of our faith. Women and men who were persecuted, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, violated, and executed, but who had put their faith in Christ and stayed true to that faith until the very end. In 1918, Elizabeth Feodorovna, a nun, was thrown into a mine shaft in Russia with several others while grenades were dropped on them. Witnesses said they could hear them singing hymns until they died. In 1945, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Germany. The doctor who witnessed the execution later said “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer ... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed.” In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in El Salvador while celebrating communion.
Hundreds of thousands, from the time of Christ until the present have been martyred, but all of those martyrs held fast to their belief in Christ and found that though they knew their bodies would die, their Spirits were still strong. Though they knew they would suffer pain and humiliation, their true value was not compromised. Though they knew that they would be abandoned by many who had stood with them, they would never be alone.
Jesus promised that in God’s boundless love, whoever believed in him should never perish, but would have life eternal. We will still face hardship, but when we turn and devote ourselves completely to Christ there is nothing that can break us. Not tragedy, not suffering, not pain, not the loss of a loved one, not cancer, not heart disease, not strokes, not dementia, not loneliness, not limb amputation, not paralysis, not injury, not catastrophe, not fire, not water, not wind, not storms, not earth, not even death. Whoever believes in Christ shall never perish, but shall find eternal life. Amen.
March 7 - “A Sanctuary in Time” - Rev. Michael Plank
3rd Sunday in Lent
March 7th, 2021
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“A Sanctuary in Time”
Text: Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Scripture Lesson: Exodus 20:1-17
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that the practice of taking Sabbath creates for us a sanctuary in time to the end that hearers will be moved to observe Sabbath days in their own lives.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious and merciful God we give you thanks for the renewal and insight we hear in your Word. Enlighten us this morning and speak to us anew. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: After the Israelites left Egypt and entered the wilderness, they eventually came to the Desert of Sinai. Moses went up the mountain there and God began the process of giving him the Law. Listen for God’s Word in this telling of that event.
A few years ago, Lauren and I had the opportunity to attend a conference/retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Berkshires in Connecticut. We met there with fascinating people who were all exploring what it means to be in leadership, and how care of the soul fits into that. And a fascinating and humbling part of that experience was to hear the director talk about what basically amount to the center rules.
All meals are served in a large dining tent and are prepared to the highest standards of Kosher. The reason for this, is that they wanted to be as open and hospitable as possible to as many people as possible. And while a bunch of rules don’t always sound hospitable, he explained it this way: Anyone without a religious dietary code or dietary preferences can eat whatever they want. A vegetarian might not be able to eat a steak dinner, but they can eat Kosher. A Buddhist can eat Kosher. A Muslim who keeps Halal can eat Kosher. By following the rules as closely as possible, they made it so the table was open to everyone.
And I try to remember that when I read the Ten Commandments, which are just rules. Biblical scholars have long broken them into two sections: 1-4, which are about how to be in relationship with God, and 5-10, which are about how to be in relationship with humanity. And for the most part, all of them are pretty easy.
The first one is that God should be the most important thing we worship. No problem. Then we have the commandment forbidding the making and worshipping of false idols. Piece of cake. Next on the list is to not take God’s name in vain. We might slip up with an occasional “OMG” when we are maybe not discussing theology or faith, but we get the idea.
Honor your father and mother; check. Do not murder; check. Do not commit adultery; check. Do not steal; got it. Do not lie; yep. Do not covet; well that one we might struggle with too. It would be easier if it were only the people we liked who had better stuff than us. But we get it. Coveting is bad. So by and large, the Ten Commandments, are pretty straightforward.
But there’s one that seems to be consistently undervalued: number four, which is the longest. But we pretty much just stick with the first of it and call it good: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (v. 8). Which for most people, when they think about observing it, basically means: go to church on the Sabbath, which for us is Sunday.
But the fourth commandment says more than that. In no uncertain terms, the commandment says that the Sabbath is a day of complete rest.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (vv. 8-11).
The command says that everyone is to rest on the Sabbath. Which means if you’re self-employed, or an employee, take a day off. If you’re an employer, give your workers a day off. If you’re a farmer, let your animals have a day off. If you have people who work for you who aren’t Christian or Jewish, guess what? They get a day off too. If you’re a parent, your kids even get a day with no chores. You’ve got six days a week to do everything that needs doing, but on the seventh day, rest for everyone. That’s what the commandment says.
But who has time for that? And how important is it to observe the Sabbath really? I mean, Jesus was always getting in trouble by those uptight Pharisees for healing on the Sabbath. And didn’t he say, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath” (paraphrase of Mark 2:27-28)? It’s pretty easy to make that sound like the Sabbath is just a nice optional thing that we can take if we want as long as we don’t have more important work to do.
Now, the benefits of taking one day of rest each week have been well documented. Taking time for rest leads to decreased stress, lower risk of heart attack, longer life span, lower risk of obesity, improved moods, more restful sleep, and even increased productivity. Researchers all over the world have cited overwork as the cause of countless maladies. And the simple act of taking time off has been shown conclusively to make people healthier.
But who has time for that? How realistic is it, really, to get all of our work done in a mere six days and then rest for a full 24 hours? With the pressures and demands of work, kids, their activities, volunteer responsibilities, social clubs, cleaning, yardwork, projects around the house, grocery shopping, and generally getting our lives in order, who has time to take what is basically a vacation day every week? It’s hard enough to find 8 consecutive hours to devote to sleep, let alone a full day devoted to just rest.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1951 book The Sabbath talks at length about the strict Jewish observation of a weekly day of rest. He discusses the many perceived challenges to taking Sabbath, and he speaks of his experience of being stereotyped as a lazy Jew for observing a day of rest instead of a seventh day of work. But he defends that spiritual discipline of taking time for Sabbath.
The Hebrew word for “holy” is קֹ֫דֶשׁ. It can be translated as “apartness, sacredness, holiness, of divine activity and majesty.” The first time it is used in the Bible is in the second chapter of Genesis when it says: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (v. 3). Unlike many other religions across the world, the first sanctification – the first holy-making – in the universe happens not with a building, or a mountain, or a lake, or even a person, but with time.
Rabbi Herschel said that the Jews have no cathedrals like the Christians. In Judaism, he says, we “learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent streams of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (p. 8). Sabbath is an experience of the holiness of God. It is a taste, the rabbis say, of the Messianic promise: a small sampling of what it will be like when the Messiah comes. It is a glimpse of eternity. It is a holy period of time when one encounters God. And Herschel continues, “unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of [the one] who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath” (p. 74).
The Sabbath commandment is the fourth commandment, and remember that the first four commandments are about how to be in relationship with God. We want to find God, we yearn for some assurance that God is actually there, but if you want to be in relationship, you have to build a relationship. And that is what the Sabbath is for, it is an experience of God. And if Sabbaths are indeed a true experience of God, then our objections to them based on how busy we are, become as hollow as if we say we are too busy to eat or sleep or breathe or love. I have been challenged before to change my vocabulary and instead of saying “I’m too busy for that,” saying “That’s not a priority for me.” And so if I’m too busy for Sabbath, what that really means is that Sabbath is not a priority for me. There’s time for whatever you want there to be time for.
And the humbling truth is that the world goes on without us. It spun before we were born, and it will spin long after we die. The tasks of the world will survive our absence for one day a week. Indeed, God created it that way. In the first creation story in Genesis it says “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done,” (2:2, New Revised Standard Version). On the seventh day, not the sixth. Creation was not finished until God had created a day of rest. The Sabbath is not a break from the six days, the six days lead up to the climax of the Sabbath.
God commanded us to rest and renew ourselves not just for our bodies, but because in the act of taking a Sabbath we renew our very souls. We experience God’s holiness on earth. Now don’t take one sabbath day and find that you don’t revel in God’s glory and then decide it’s not worth it. It is a practice. You will get better at it. It is maybe your first encounter with it. Don’t judge it based on one encounter.
Practice. This is Lent, our time of spiritual discipline, so add this Sabbath discipline if you don’t have it. And if a whole day is too much to add, then add an afternoon. If that’s too much, add an hour. If that’s too much, add 10 minutes, add 5 minutes, add 1 minute. Add 1 minute of total rest to your day – not your phone, not the radio, not driving – but rest, stillness, a sanctuary in time.
And each time you practice Sabbath, you will join with our Jewish sisters and brothers in building for yourself, brick by brick, a sanctuary in time; places of holiness where we experience God’s very Kingdom of Heaven here on earth: a place where there is no pressure of project deadlines, no anxiety over meeting presentations, but more than that, no stress-induced heart attacks, or elevated blood pressures, or sleepless nights, but peace.
God’s peace that is not physical, and so cannot be destroyed. God’s peace that is not an absence of busyness, but the presence of love and justice. God’s peace that heals all wounds and all hurts. God’s peace that passes all understanding, God’s peace that is infinite and holy, God’s peace that is available for us at all times, in all places, in our Sabbath sanctuaries. Amen.
 This idea, and several others in this sermon, come from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York: 1951. Articles are numerous on this subject, and can be found in such sources as U.S. News and World Report (http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2011/08/17/the-benefits-of-taking-time-off), CNN, and others. Paraphrase of p. 9 of Heschel’s The Sabbath.