Sunday, December 6, 2020

PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD

 Second Sunday of Advent

PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD

Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11

2 Peter 3:8–14

Mark 1:1–8

Dr. David L. Hall, General Minister

Heart for God, Ltd.


While I was associate pastor at the campus church in the early 1980s Messiah College invited former President Jimmy Carter to be their speaker for the inaugural address in an annual lectureship on religion and society. Months before the date of his coming the Secret Service was there to check security. From the college end, there were invitations and other publicity promotions done in preparation for such a big event. The actual day of Carter's arrival on campus revealed other preparations that had been made. The press and television news crews were there. Hundreds of cars were being directed to makeshift parking by what seemed to be an entire force of auxiliary police. Faculty were making their way to the processional line in their academic regalia. Secret Servicemen seemed to be almost everywhere with two-way radios in their hands. Nothing was there that did not belong. The President had come and everyone was prepared.

The Scriptures today help us think about what it means for us to be ready for God's Son to come into our world. On this second Sunday of Advent we especially remember the Old Testament preparation for Christ's coming. As Christians, we know this has a double focus. Jesus came the first time, and we remember his incarnation at Christmas. Someday Jesus will come again, and we are called to live in preparedness for that second coming.

We can find encouragement to focus on the second coming and understand how to be prepared for it by looking back at the first coming and seeing how preparations were made as Jesus made his first entry into our world. I am directing our attention to two things to help us do that. The first is to see what God has been doing throughout history. The second is to see the message God specifically gave just as Christ was about to make his appearance.

Advent is not just a time for focusing on a baby coming in a manger. Advent is when we remember that God has been at work in our world for thousands of years calling for people to know him as the one true God. Then we realize that the ultimate way he has done this is to bring his Son into our world as a human being. But everything that went before led up to it.

The Old Testament history of Israel is essential to our understanding of who God is and what he is doing. God had formed Israel to lead all nations into the fullness of his grace and his purpose for all people. Over and over God would bless the children of Abraham, but they would use the blessings selfishly and forget God. God would chastise, they would repent and turn back to the Lord.... and then they would let their hearts wander again. Finally God sent a crushing chastisement. It was as if God had totally rejected them, but then he speaks through Isaiah:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed... (40:1,2a)

Isaiah goes on to promise that the glory of the Lord shall be revealed (v5). The Sovereign Lord will come with power (v10) and tend his flock like a shepherd (v11). But God’s people need to be ready, so the message comes to prepare the way for the Lord (v3).

Yet we are so easily distracted. Just like Israel, we can get excited about God’s blessings—even go through the motions of giving him the credit—but still get all wrapped up in our own selfish desires. Like Israel, our hearts can be pulled away from the Lord to the alluring, and often despicable, things the world flashes before our eyes.

There's a story told of a pastor who was officiating at a funeral. When he was done, he was asked to lead the funeral procession as it made its way to the cemetery. So he got into his car, and he started driving at the head of the funeral procession. He flipped on his radio and became preoccupied, lost in thought; he forgot where he was going. About that time, he passed a K-Mart and thought about something he needed to pick up. So he turned into the parking lot. As he was looking for a parking space, he just happened to glance into the rear-view mirror and saw a string of cars following, all with their lights on!

That is what happened to Israel. God put his people out in front to lead the way, so that all people could see the way to the one true God. Then they took their eyes off God. They became preoccupied with themselves. Now we see them in this first text needing the promise and mercy of God to heal and restore. God has to tell us what he is doing and what he expects. As God says through Isaiah in another place: my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways (55:8). Many people do not know how to prepare for God to come. We think we can be in God’s presence any old way. Some people tend to think that they are doing God a favor when they mention him occasionally or go to church once a week (or a couple of times a month!).

Popular religion turns the focus on us—what we think is good and important. Years ago, in his New York Times column, David Brooks reviewed Mitch Albom, the guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morey and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Brooks said (and I agree with him) we should fear Albom's "soft-core spirituality" and "easygoing narcissism." The eternal reward pictured in Albom's book is different than the biblical one. Brooks observes, "In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It's all about you. Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery" ("Hooked on Heaven Lite," www.NYTimes.com, 3-9-04).

Some people dismiss the whole thing. They do not think any Lord is coming, and they think that what Christians know to be the Lord’s merciful delay is proof that there is no reason to worry at all.

There is a story that Satan once called to him the emissaries of hell and said he wanted to send one of them to earth to aid women and men in the ruination of their souls. He asked which one would want to go. One creature came forward and said, "I will go." Satan said, "If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?" He said, "I will tell the children of men that there is no heaven." Satan said, "They will not believe you, for there is a bit of heaven in every human heart. In the end everyone knows that right and good must have the victory. You may not go."

Then another came forward, darker and fouler than the first. Satan said, "If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?" He said, "I will tell them there is no hell." Satan looked at him and said, "Oh, no; they will not believe you, for in every human heart there's a thing called conscience, an inner voice which testifies to the truth that not only will good be triumphant, but that evil will be defeated. You may not go."

Then one last creature came forward, this one from the darkest place of all. Satan said to him, "And if I send you, what will you say to women and men to aid them in the destruction of their souls?" He said, "I will tell them there is no hurry." Satan said, "Go!"

This theme is throughout the Scriptures. We find Peter needing to tell the Church the same thing. When we get tired of waiting and when our eyes get blinded to the Old Testament models, we need a direct word like Peter gives us: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2Pet 3:8). And yet Peter is clear: the day of God is coming, and that means you ought to live holy and godly lives (v11,12). That is one way to prepare the way for the Lord.

Think back to the overall scope of Scripture again. God had been at work in our world for years through Israel to prepare the way for his Son to make his appearance. The way he works is through people like Abraham and David and Isaiah—people who have personally experienced his salvation and live holy, righteous lives. Those are the people who truly prepare the way for the Lord.

If we need to be holy to be prepared for the Lord’s coming, what does that mean for us? What do godly lives look like? We tend to put the emphasis (like the scribes and Pharisees) on outward appearance. We too easily fall for stereotypes. We quickly pass over the one key thing that God desires in his people.... because it is the one thing that is so hard for us— admitting when we are wrong. We want to settle for “knowing the right things.” We are even ready to conform to the right code as long as someone can provide one that seems to make us look good.

When the Gospels begin their story, John is the bridge between the Old Testament and the new thing God is doing. His identity was very much in the prophetic mode of the Old Testament. He was someone that would speak on behalf of the God of Israel. He was representative of all the things God had said and done for the past two thousand years. But John was also someone with a new thing to say. This mixture of the old and new worked this way: The Old Testament hope was that God would come, that God would bring salvation from enemies, that God would show mercy. This was the “right doctrine,” we might say. The new twist to John's message would be that in the coming of Jesus all these hopes had been fulfilled, but people needed help to see the very thing they were looking for.

This was John’s message—one single focus: repentance. The job of John the Baptizer was to come out of the wilderness and talk to people and to prepare them, so that when Messiah made his appearance, they would not only know who he was but be prepared to respond to what he said and called them to do. To see Christ, to know Christ, to obey Christ, demands preparation. The baptizer said the right preparation is repentance. Repentance is more than an act.

Repentance is a lifestyle. It is a way of living. To put it in more poetic words, it is the process of keeping soft before the Spirit of God. You cannot be sorry in your heart before God for sinfulness if you are not replacing the sinful acts with righteous acts. Preparation demands that day by day as we look to see Christ, we are substituting right acts for bad acts in our lives. Too much of popular theology says to practice forms of repentance, but not really change our actions. As John prepares us to receive Christ, he says you can't have one without the other. We are called to live in repentance. That is preparing the way for the Lord.

What do you and I say when we are confronted with this implication of God's salvation? Actually, what we say means little if it doesn't match what we do. And what we do needs to be placed alongside God's standards of holiness and righteousness for us to know where we truly stand. If we do that honestly we will know one thing: we need the preparation that the first Advent offers us. We need the mercy that Jesus brings to God's people. We need the first Advent not to be afraid at the second. The call is to prepare, and the way to prepare is to live in repentance for all the ways we fall short of being like God. In the words of Isaiah, we should be praying always that the Lord would, in our souls, raise up every valley and make low every mountain and hill.

I close with a story that shows repentance: Kimberly Shumate tells how she became a Christian after living as a witch. We pick up the story as she, after coming to the end of herself, walks into a church:

As I sat down, I silently shot up a desperate prayer: God, please give me someone in this crazy crowd I can relate to. If you don't give me someone, I'm walking out of here. At that moment, the pastor told the congregation to stand up and shake a few hands. I introduced myself to Lisa, whose dyed-red hair and nose ring suggested we might be at a similar place. My black-and-white hair and spiked belt told her the same. Lisa, a fellow spiritual seeker, and I became fast friends.

Looking back, I wonder how the church members stood having me in their midst for so long. I was angry and exasperated as I sat listening to their "good news." How could there be only one way to God? At the end of each message, I marched down the aisle to the pastor and began firing off an onslaught of questions. After three or four weeks of verbal sparring, he humbly offered the associate pastor's ear. I made my rounds from one elder to another, finally ending up at a Friday night Bible study looking for answers.

As I sat on the floor in the leader's living room, I felt a peace amidst this group of people who seemed to care about each other. After the study, Lisa sat beside me as Scott, the leader, patiently listened to my New-Age arguments. But one by one, the Scriptures I'd carefully prepared to punch holes in the gospel came back at me with hurricane force. Scott's words, but especially the Bible's words, confounded my cosmic view. After we'd sat there for an hour debating, I was exhausted. My hardened heart and argumentative nature finally had enough. 

As Lisa drove me home, my mind ached as I replayed Scott's words. All the Old Testament and New Testament verses had one oddly familiar voice, one tone, one heart. I wondered, How could a book written by so many different people over the course of hundreds of years fit together perfectly as if one amazing storyteller had written the whole thing? The Holy Spirit began melting my vanity and arrogance with a power stronger than any hex, incantation, or spell I'd ever used. Suddenly, the blindfold I'd worn for almost 30 years was stripped away, and instantly I knew what I'd been searching for: Jesus! The same God I'd neglected, whose name I'd used as profanity, whom I'd flat-out rejected, was the one who'd sent his Son to suffer for me, to take the guilty verdict so I could be found innocent. My eyes filled with tears as I exchanged the darkness with which I'd grown so accustomed for the light of God's truth. It was such a personal moment between the Lord and me that even Lisa, sitting next to me in the car, had no idea what was going on.

I soon realized my life was filled with empty props, and it was time to clean house. My first act of obedience was to throw out all my books on witchcraft and the paranormal, as well as my Tarot cards. But the most important possession, and most difficult to discard, was my treasured crystal ball.

I called Lisa. She came right over, and we immediately drove to the Pacific Ocean. My heart pounded as if the demons themselves weren't far behind us. We stood at the end of Malibu Pier, our beaming faces reflecting the radiance of the setting sun. I unwrapped the crystal's black velvet cover, and light streamed out like rainbows as the thick crystal met the sun's fleeting rays. As I dropped the ball into the deep blue water, I knew my future was secure. Now I had a Savior who would be with me always. It still moves me to tears to think he waited through all those years of anger, disappointment, fear, and bad choices. All the mistakes I'd ever made were wiped clean. (Kimberly Shumate, "I Was a Witch," Today's Christian Woman, Sep/Oct 2002, pp41-43)

As we go into this Advent season I want us to think about the way we are preparing the way for the Lord. We may not have dramatic stories like the conversion of a witch, but we can legitimately take as much care in preparing our hearts for the coming of God's Son as Messiah College took when President Carter visited their campus—nothing there that does not belong.

Hear the Scriptures: Prepare the way for the Lord.... live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God... truly believe (and model) that the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Prepare the way for the Lord.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Brief update

 In June 2020 I was diagnosed with melanoma brain tumors. I have been in treatment since then, and mostly out of commission for doing any sermonizing.

Things seem to be going "ok" right now, and I hope to be doing homilies before too long.

For any who still attempts to follow me this way, thanks and blessings!

DH

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Don't get too distracted!

Don't get too distracted!

The lectionary reading this past week has included Paul's second letter to Timothy. So long ago the Holy Spirit gave inspiration to help us hold steady:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
What the Church has taught and Scripture has affirmed for almost 2000 years is what we are to focus on and hold to tightly in spite of all the perverted thinking and activity that cannot see beyond what appears to so important at the moment.
Spend more time in Scripture and prayer instead of letting daily "news" create a distraction from the Kingdom that will endure beyond all that seems so important in this world that is passing away.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday –– Amazing Love!

Good Friday –– Amazing Love!
April 10, 2020

With arms spread wide on the cross, Jesus shows us an incredible contrast….

The suffering and death is a picture of what sin––turning away from God––means. The cross shows what sin is in the eyes of God’s holiness and justice. Jesus on the cross is us, because all of us are guilty of choosing our own way instead of God’s perfect love.

And yet that is exactly the paradox and contrast of the cross. The cross shows us God’s love. Instead of allowing the repercussion of sin to fall on us, God chose to take it upon himself. Jesus suffered and died for me…. and for you…. and for the injustices of the whole world.

God himself….. taking my place…. loving me so much that he took the ridicule, the shame, the pain, and death itself so I can freely enter into His incredible love.

One hymn writer asks, What Wondrous Love Is This?

While it’s beyond our comprehension, it is right for us to reflect so that we can immerse ourselves in God’s love as much as possible.

Perhaps my favorite hymn writer is Charles Wesley. In one of his masterpieces he has penned these words:

’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies!
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine;
’Tis mercy all! let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?!

Amazing love! How can it be

That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?!


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Going to Jerusalem

I first developed this sermon in the early 1980s when I was Associate Pastor of the Grantham Brethren in Christ Church, the campus congregation at Messiah College. Over the years I have used it again, and as you will see at the end, I have "tweaked" it to bring it a bit more up to date with what God has done in my life since the early 80s. I offer this today, Palm Sunday 2020, in these days of seclusion and recognizing that as we follow Jesus in his death we do not know until the day of our physical death where that will lead. May the Lord give us the grace to follow him to the very end.

GOING TO JERUSALEM
John 12:12–33

On Palm Sunday the Church begins to follow her Lord on his path to the cross in Jerusalem. This is not just a story of something that happened in the life of one man so many years ago. Neither is it only an integral part of the Church’s doctrine. The message of the gospel is also a method that must be incarnated — fleshed out in the lives of those who take it seriously. The message that comes to us from Jesus Christ is not only an offer of forgiveness and a gift of salvation, it is a call to obedience. I invite us to consider what going to Jerusalem means.

The first thing to consider is what going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus himself. It is important enough to be included in all four gospels. Holy Week begins with the acclaim that Jesus received from the people as he rode into the city. But he did not go into Jerusalem to hear the shouts of Hosanna or even to test the waters of the people's affections. The first thing we can see in this event of Jesus' life is its parallel to his teaching. Jesus is coming face to face with a theme that occurs time and again throughout the gospels, and John has Jesus saying it here in connection with this going to Jerusalem. It's in vs24,25:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their life lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Those were not mere words rolling off the lips of Jesus so people would say, "What a profound thinker!"  This was no intellectual concept to be understood, but kept at arm's length.  Jesus knew it was the truth about the way things are, and that every human life in the world had to face the implication of that truth — even he himself.

It has always been that way. About 2,000 years before Jesus said these words, God came to Abraham:  "Abraham! How about that life you hold so dear? Do you still love me? Even more than Isaac? Offer him as a sacrifice!" Now here is Jesus, going to Jerusalem knowing he is God the Father's Isaac.

It is here that we see the second thing that going to Jerusalem meant for Jesus: it was a test of obedience to the Father. Think of how the cross must have loomed on the horizon of Jesus' consciousness. How much did the boy Jesus understand when he stated at 12 years of age, "I must pursue the things of my Father," to those men steeped in the Scriptures? Most biblical scholars agree that by the time of his baptism, Jesus knew what lay ahead. In the first three gospels, Jesus’ temptation occurs right after his baptism, and already Satan tries to dissuade Jesus from the path of the cross. As John opens his story of Jesus' ministry, there is a calamitous wedding. Jesus' mother comes to him for help and gets a reply that shows the shadow that was already falling on him: "Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come" (2:4).

Over half of Luke's account is devoted to Jesus going to Jerusalem. It all starts at 9:51— As the time approached…. Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. By the time Luke’s Gospel gets to 18:31, Jesus and his disciples are nearing Jerusalem.  Again, Jesus is aware of what lies ahead. Luke records:
Jesus took the twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him (18:31,32).

So what did going to Jerusalem mean for Jesus? It meant that his teaching on life / death and giving / keeping were real life issues. It was not enough to talk about them. They had to be acted upon. It also meant that Jesus must persevere to the end in his obedience to the Father. The question was before him as he faced Jerusalem — as it had been at the other instances in his ministry. What was his answer to be? At v27 we hear him ask the question of himself and give the answer: Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour." For Jesus, going to Jerusalem meant death.

A second question to ask is what Jesus going to Jerusalem meant for the world. I raise that because of v31,32, where there are three obvious things: (1) judgment on the world, (2) freedom for the world, and (3) an invitation to the people of the world.

Here is the essence of the gospel. God always responds to sin with judgment, but in sending his Son he has chosen to put on Jesus the punishment of our sins. But it's not only our sinfulness that's at stake; the whole world is in the power of the evil one (1Jn 5:19). Satan must be defeated, and that is what Jesus is doing by going to Jerusalem.

Do you remember the parable of the strong man? You can find it in Matthew 12. Jesus asked the question: "How can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he robs his house" (v29). That is right after he had spoken the words, But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. You see, by going to Jerusalem, Jesus was entering the strong man's house.  He was making his move to take the rule of earth away from Satan. And the word here in v31 is, Now the prince of this world will be driven out.

The context for this is v32: Jesus is to be "lifted up" — crucified. That crucifixion is the seed going into the ground. It is the full incarnation of what it means to not try to save one's own life. It is the way judgment has been turned to mercy and bondage to freedom. Jesus' going to Jerusalem means we are invited to come to God knowing that our sins are forgiven, and the prince of this world has no further claim on us. Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Corinthians: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them (2 Cor 5:18,19). For the world, Jesus going to Jerusalem meant salvation.

The third question I want to ask, though, is this: What does Jesus going to Jerusalem mean for the believer? It is here that we need to pause and reflect as we journey through Lent. This is where God has something fresh to say to each of us. Here we find the watershed that delineates people who only know the story from people who understand the implications of the story and truly follow Jesus. Notice v26: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

How do we follow Jesus to Jerusalem? There is a sense in which, if we are believers in Jesus Christ, we have already followed Jesus to Jerusalem. We are in him, as Paul says so often. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he went there for me and for each one of you. That is the gospel — he took our place.

This is the teaching that comes to us in the epistles as they interpret this great thing God did in sending his Son to the cross. Consider a chapter like Romans 6. Think about what Paul is saying there:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (v3).

If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection (v5).

For we know that our old self was crucified with him... (v6).

Now if we died with Christ we believe that we will also live with him (v8).
That is part of one chapter from one epistle. The fact that we died with Christ is basic to everything else in personal salvation. It is the basis of God's forgiveness and it is the basis of our response. Consider the argument for holy living in Colossians 3, where we are reminded that there is a fundamental truth which dictates one's behavior — For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (v3). It has already happened. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die, he carried with him all who would believe. That is the first way, then, that we follow Jesus.

But there is a second way. Two verses later in the Colossian text, there is this command: Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (3:5). This time the verb is not indicative of something that is already true; instead it's imperative — a command — to experience what God has already decreed. That is the part which is so easy to avoid. There is comfort in hearing that Jesus went to the cross for us, but the words take up your cross and follow me seldom elicits the same enthusiasm.

Jeremy Taylor was a 17th century man of God who lived in England and wrote a book, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living. In it he said, "Men are apt to prefer a prosperous error before an afflicted truth." I know that is my natural inclination. I had much rather think I can embrace mentally the doctrine of salvation and yet not be personally inconvenienced. And considering our culture with its self-indulgence and narcissism, that seems to be the condition upon which people will hear the gospel — if at all. We want a religion that will make us happy, not one that calls us to come and die.

It is so easy to shirk the spiritual fight. It is so easy to presume on grace instead of battling to the death those things in Colossians 3 — the sexual immorality, impurity, evil desires and greed; the anger, filthy language and lying. We cringe to hear of Christian service that might call for inconvenience and discomfort, much less physical danger.

That is not the way the Scriptures portray following Jesus. Listen to Paul as he wrote his second letter to Corinth:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake (4:8-11).

That is what Jesus meant when he said, Whoever serves me must follow me (v26). Just as he came to live out the truth that he taught, so he calls his disciples. The message and the method are one. The message is Jesus and him crucified. The method for those who would continue the message is also to know of that crucifixion working in them. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently put it: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Jesus said, no servant is greater than his master (Jn. 13:16; 15:20). Any perversion of Christianity that would spare the believer a cross must be seen as a deception having its origin in Satan himself. As we get ready for Holy Week, let us not forget that there was no resurrection without the crucifixion; no elevation to glory without the obedience. When John shows Jesus going to Jerusalem, he has him going to his death. Here is the question for today: Are we truly following Jesus? Where is our Jerusalem? What death is the Lord wanting to work into you in order to transform your life?

I look back on my life and realize much of my ministry was spent declaring “truth” that I had —blindly — allowed to become disconnected to where my heart truly was. I was committed to the truth of the gospel. I took the Scriptures seriously. Many of my years in pastoral ministry were given to a passionate declaration of God’s truth, and yet I was not giving myself fully in following Jesus in death. I gave myself to priorities that, while not “wrong” things, were wrong in my life because of the place they took. I cycled over and over with internal moral battles, not seeing (or being willing to see) that I was hedging on a basic issue of following Jesus into his death in those areas of my life where I wanted to keep some control.

In his mercy, the Lord did not allow me to be satisfied with that level of commitment. During my Sabbatical in 2002 I began an intentional process of repentance. I needed to repent of the place some sporting activities had come to have in my life. I needed to repent of how easily I pleased myself in the ways I spent time and money.

In that process I began to experience how the life of Jesus is only free to work in us as we die to the things that insulate us from the real work of salvation. Death is not really death when the Lord lets us see the reality of his life at work in our lives. There is no way I would have been ready emotionally to face cancer a few years later without the Lord having already led me into the truth about dying — in some practical ways — in order to live. We cannot truly live for Jesus until we are ready to die.
   

I have no idea what particular way the Lord may want to work this into each of your lives. That is between you and him. I do know, though, that our Lord calls us to come and die. It is the way he gives us his life.

God wants us to know him. Jesus wants us to follow him, but that only comes by the way of the cross. We have to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. The cross is more than an experience Jesus had to face. The cross is more than the general place of the world's salvation. The cross is God's method of bringing his very life into our lives. The Son of God went to Jerusalem, and he died there.  Each person who would be faithful to him must follow him there, too.



Dr. David L. Hall

Heart for God

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A BRIEF PICTURE OF REALITY

This homily began as a personal journal entry. It was before my diaconate ordination; it was possibly before my entry into the Church (I haven’t looked to see the exact date). The impetus was a Mass I attended when the Gospel was the Transfiguration text. Unfortunately, the homily that day was a totally wasted opportunity (it was not a Diocese of Harrisburg priest). As I sat in agony over what could have been proclaimed, a “what could have been” thought developed in my mind. Later at home, I made the journal entry.

Some years later, after my ordination, the Transfiguration text was the Gospel on a Sunday I was preaching. I went back to my journal and worked my thoughts from that earlier day into a homily. I have used the essence of this several times, and the Lord keeps nudging me to give it again.

This year I had developed another homily using the Epistle reading. On Saturday night, as I began to prepare my mind and heart to proclaim God’s Word, I sensed that what I had written for this weekend was not what I was to give. I looked again at the Transfiguration homily and the Spirit gave affirmation. So, here is a previously preached sermon––but the truth is ever new. May the Lord give us spiritual eyes to see…..


March 8, 2020 –– 2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1–4a / 2 Timothy 1:8b–10 / Matthew 17:1–9
A BRIEF PICTURE OF REALITY

What if we could go back in time and see Jesus when he was on earth! What did people see when they looked at Jesus? They saw…. a man. Sometimes they saw him do some amazing things, but he was still a man who dressed like them, ate like them, walked the roads and paths like them.... a man who the Scriptures and the Church confess to be fully human.

Those looking at him during those earthly years would have asked (if they had been told this Man was God): What? How? Jesus seemed—even though he was engaging, puzzling, commanding, divisive and exasperating—to be just another man.

But one day—one time on one particular day—Peter, James and John saw Jesus in his glory: he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And so John wrote later in his Gospel: we have seen his glory. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. The glory that covered Adam and Eve at the beginning, the glory that came down on Mt. Sinai and caused Moses’ face to shine, the glory that inhabited the Tabernacle and the Temple, and the glory promised by Isaiah and Ezekiel came into our world in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yet God does not overwhelm us. God wants us to trust him. So Jesus let three of his disciples see his glory once during those ministry days. It was enough to pave the way for a Faith that would change the world. We can believe today because there is a credible eyewitness record that has been established by the Apostles. Peter and John both wrote that they saw.... and they testified that these things are true.... and then they lived––in such a contrasting way to who they previously were—so that people looking at them took notice that they had been with Jesus.

What do you “see” when you come to church? Do we limit our vision to the human side of the liturgy? Do we ever wonder: If Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, why isn’t there an obvious and overwhelming glory? The Transfiguration calls us—warmly and powerfully invites us—to “see” the glory of God beyond what is considered normal and natural in the world around us. Without faith we do not see beyond outward appearance, but Jesus came to show us what is real.

As Christians, we live in the hope of glory. Our destiny is to be like Jesus. As we journey through these days of Lent, let’s not forget the bigger picture. Jesus gave this early glimpse of his glory so that his disciples (and that includes us) could have a brief picture of reality. The truth of Jesus… his presence in the Eucharist… the transformation he is doing in us…. it’s all right here.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Being the Light of the World

February 9, 2020 –– 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7–10 / Psalm 112 / 1 Corinthian 2:1–5 / Matthew 5:13–16
Being the Light of the World

There’s something both glorious and intimidating in this Gospel: Jesus says, “You (referring to those who follow him) are the light of the world.”

Almost instinctively we know that Christians should be exemplary. Yet, if we’re honest, we cry out, “How can I possibly live up to such an expectation?!”

Isaiah tells us some of what it means: share, shelter, clothe….and do not turn your back on the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless, the naked. That comes with a promise: then light shall rise for you in the darkness…. But again, if we’re honest, we say, “How can I possibly live up to such a challenge?!”

Information technology makes us aware of needs that go beyond our comprehension. There  is heartbreaking human pain which almost forces us to turn away because it is too overwhelming; answers seem hopelessly complex and immense.

Mother Teresa was exemplary in so many ways, and one notable observation particularly applies here. She said, “I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time––just one, one, one. So you begin. I began––I picked up one person. Maybe if I didn't pick up that one person, I wouldn't have picked up forty-two thousand…. The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community. Just begin––one, one, one.”

Everyone who follows Jesus is to make a difference. There are many ways to do that, and not all of us will have the same focus. That is good. That is what gives breadth to Christian witness. What matters is making a difference for Jesus’s sake. It’s a big world with many issues and even more needy people.

Yet even as I say this, it’s not that easy. We live in a world that entices us to be selfish. Of course, it’s not expressed that way. We are inundated with advertising that constantly offers us more, bigger, and better. We are offered innumerable rationalizations of why we deserve to focus on ourselves and excuse ourselves from getting too involved with others’ needs.

It helps to understand that even as Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, he has also provided the way for us to do it. It’s not merely up to us. Even more, it doesn’t make sense unless we embrace the gift of faith.

Giving and doing for others in a way that is inconvenient and even costly to us doesn’t make sense in a world of self-indulgence. St Paul wants the Corinthians (and us) to know that faith [does] not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God. It is when we see and believe that God has loved the world through Jesus Christ and him crucified that we understand that God wants to do the same thing in and through us. When we “die” to what is easiest and most profitable for ourselves in order to give and serve––to love––others, we are joined with Jesus. It is then we can be the light of the world, or at least contribute our individual one-candle-power.

What if each of you hearing this would reach out in the coming days and weeks to look for one way each day to serve or express a kindness to someone as you go about your routines? And if that someone notices, simply say, “The Lord bless you.” That connects the action explicitly to our faith. Just though our parish we could be touching over a thousand people ever week!

Every day we have opportunities to love in the name of Jesus and be, as Paul expressed it, a demonstration of Spirit and power. Sometimes a few of us may do something that looks “big” as the world looks at things, but usually the ways we show selfless love will be very common (and often personally inconvenient or costly).

There is a story from a generation ago about an incident that changed a man’s life. A group of salesmen who went to a week-long sales convention had assured their wives they would be home in time for Friday dinner. Running behind on Friday afternoon, and in a rush at the airport, one of the men hit a table which held a display of apples, which flew everywhere. Without stopping or looking back, they all charged ahead to reach their plane which was already boarding. That is, all charged ahead but one. He paused and looked back, then exhaled a deep breath of compassion for a girl whose apple stand had been overturned. He yelled for his buddies to go on, telling one of them to give his wife the message that he was taking a later flight (this was before cell phones, and when airports were considerably more inviting). Then he fully turned to see apples all over the terminal aisle.

Looking more closely, he saw a girl in her teens who was blind. She was crying tears of frustration and at the same time helplessly groping for the spilled apples as the crowd passed by with no one stopping. The salesman knelt on the floor with her, gathered up the apples, put them back on the table and helped reorganize her display. As he did this, he noticed that some of the apples had become bruised. He pulled out his wallet and said to the girl, "Here, please take this $40 for the damage. Are you okay?” She nodded through her tears as the salesman started to walk away. Suddenly the girl, still in semi-shock, called out to him, "Mister...." He paused, turned and said, “Yes?” She asked, “Mister, are you Jesus?” That moment became a milestone in his life.

You are light of the world. When we understand that we become light as we embrace the cross, this identify can be quite intimidating. So we pray for grace and strength.


One way the grace and strength come to us is when we open our eyes to see not just the intimidation but the glory––you are the light of world. It’s not because of who we are in ourselves; it is because God has invited us to be partakers of his grace. Think of this: the life of Jesus Christ can live in you and be expressed through you. Imagine someone seeing Jesus in you! That is why Jesus tells those who follow him: You are the light of the world.

 
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