Filling Space with Empty Words, Transfiguration Sunday, Mark 9:2-9

A sermon delivered by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., 2/14/2021

Turn in your Bible to Mark 9:2-9. It literally falls in the very center of Mark’s Story and serves as a continental divide of sorts for the gospel. The first half of Mark has laid out who Jesus was and described the works he did: He preached; he taught; and he healed.  He demonstrated authority over the courses of nature and unexplainable demonic influences. The first half of the Story leads us to this point: The revelation of the glory of God in Jesus.  The second half of Mark’s gospel describes how well the world understood and responded to this revelation of Jesus’ true identity. As we approach the season of Lent, we will have forty days to wade into the Story of how the religious, political, and economic systems rejected this revealed identity. We will also have the opportunity to reflect on how each of us has rejected it as well.

In the chapter leading up to today’s reading, some pretty exciting things have happened that point to the fact the disciples were still not really “getting it” when it came to Jesus.  Peter has told Jesus that he is the Christ of God, which is all well and good, but when Jesus began describing what that really entailed, Peter flinched (Mk 8:30-33). Jesus’ understanding of what it means to be the Christ of God did not align with Peter’s triumphalist view. Jesus even sternly told Peter, “You’re acting like the Evil One; get behind me.”

 So this morning, we hear Jesus call three of his disciples to join him on an outing. Peter, James, and John have accompanied Jesus before on these special trips like the time they were invited to the bedside healing of a twelve year old girl in Mark 4.  Later in Mark’s Story, we will see Jesus invite this group again to stay with him while he prays alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, James and John were the first line of Jesus’ spiritual support system[1]. These were his proverbial soul brothers who knew him better than anyone!  Well, at least thought they did. Listen closely to this compact and rich encounter. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.[2]

So, let’s unpack our text. For a person acquainted with the Jewish spiritual stories, you would immediately hear all types of Old Testament allusions in our text.  You have the great prophets mentioned and you have earnest disciples encountering God on a high mountain. There is familiarity to this Story. We should know where it’s headed and be able to call out the punchline before the Story is even finished! Like a simple math equation, Great OT Prophets plus a High Mountain plus a Select Few People equals an epiphany, a revelation! We know that God shows up at these times!  God speaks through burning flames in bushes and clouded and misted mountaintops. God reveals Godself on the top of mountains through wind, earthquakes, with booming voices and sometimes just through gentle whispers like with Elijah.

Friends, this is now the second time God speaks in Mark’s Story.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism when a voice from heaven said, “You are my son, the beloved.”[3] The second time is today but this time God lets others hear the declaration as well: This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!

I don’t know about you, but in my imagination I can hear a tone of annoyance in God’s voice when Peter, James and John are told this. Think about it: They are invited to the mountain whereupon they witness the mystical, spiritual revelation of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah! Not only was Jesus talking with them, but this is the moment when Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of the heavenly glory of who this Jesus is! This Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God!  What an ecstatic spiritual moment and experience for these three disciples!  What a privilege it is to be there, to hear conversations only angels are able to hear! What a magical, luminous moment!

And then Peter starts talking.

He interrupts the Divine board meeting. 

Dear Peter. Once again, he opens his mouth and sticks his foot in it. Once again, he is presented with an opportunity to fully see Jesus for who Jesus is and misses the point. I’m grateful Peter is loved and is close to Jesus because that gives me hope for you and me as well!

We don’t fully get it either if we’re honest.  We like Peter want to turn our encounter with the glorified Christ into a personal moment on the mountaintop. We like Peter fail to see that Jesus is not on the same plane as Moses and Elijah; Jesus is not another prophet but is the very Presence of the Divine I Am! Like Peter, we have an encounter with the Living God and we get uncomfortable and feel we have to do something.

God’s reply, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Can you hush up and just listen to him!” Maybe God is trying to tell us don’t just do something but simply sit there and be still for him! Listen to what Jesus, the Beloved, has to say!

In fairness to Peter, he does what we all typically do. We like to fill space and silence with empty words.  When there is a lull in the conversation, when something spectacular happens, we feel the need to hit the pause button on this awe-filled experience and interrupt it. Like a father to a teenaged son who is trying to instill a life lesson at a poignant time, God is telling Peter, “Won’t you just hush up and pay attention!” Peter’s busyness gets in the way of his ability to see who Jesus really is. Instead of just being consumed in the moment, taking it in, seeing how Jesus is similar but oh-so-very different from Moses and Elijah, Peter disrupts the moment. As soon as Peter opened his mouth, the glorified encounter was over.

We don’t like silence. We get uncomfortable in silence. Silence can feel overwhelming and heavily present. So we open our mouths and say something silly to fill the empty space and void. For example, a friend may say to you and me, “My child just died from cancer” but instead of sitting in that holy moment and experience the pain and loss of your friend, you or I feel uncomfortable and say something that makes us feel better like, “I guess God needed them more than you right now.”  What!?

Beloved, as we begin the change of season from Epiphany to Lent, we are invited into prayerful, thoughtful, silent and contemplative reflection on what happens to Jesus in the second half of Mark’s Story leading to persecution, arrest, and crucifixion.  It’s a time we are invited into the space where we hold our own pain, our own loss, our own disappointment up to the Glory of Christ and just sit with him. We are invited to be still and simply be in his transfigured Presence soaking up what the Spirit is trying to teach each one of us in our own place. But we have to be still.  We have to learn to be comfortable in the silent and sometimes uncomfortable Presence of God.

Over the years, you may have picked up on a tradition I have at the beginning of every worship service. I invite us to be still and listen!  “Shhhh!” I say, “The Spirit of God is in this place.”  Have you wondered why I do that? It’s to call us back to the Mount of Transfiguration where we like Peter, James and John surround ourselves with Prophets and stories from old and can sit in the Presence of God…if only we would be quiet and listen!  Amen.

© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] See Mark 14:32 ff.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Mark 1:9-11.

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The Power of Communion!, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23


A sermon by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., 2/7/2021.

Today we find our beloved but beleaguered Apostle Paul having to defend himself against upstarts in the church who are challenging his leadership and teaching. You see, after Paul left the area, other pastors came into the church of Corinth and began to teach things that went against the good news Paul was trying to share. Some wanted the Corinthian Christians to follow old Jewish ways and laws.  Others were promoting a more libertine lifestyle like eating food that was sacrificed to idols. Writing from afar, Paul is encouraging the church to pause and take a breath.  He wants them to relax and remember the basics of the faith which is a life of love focused on sharing the gospel, literally, the good tidings, of Jesus Christ.  Listen to Word of the Lord from 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.[1]

            Some years ago, actor Tom Hanks played the part of Army Ranger, Captain John Miller who was tasked to find a young man, Private Ryan, in the midst of the Second World War serving somewhere in France. One of the first scenes in the movie lasted some 24-minutes, and when a writer or director slows down a scene to last that long in story-time, he or she wants us to really pay attention and soak in what’s happening. The scene is probably one of the most exhausting things I have ever experienced. The film’s director, Steven Spielberg, shoots the film from the perspective that you and I are taking part in the D-Day invasion and are being sent ashore on Omaha Beach. For 24 long minutes we experience what it might have been like to feel the fear as our landing craft came closer to shore, hearing the whizzing of bullets rip through the flesh of our fellow soldiers, and experience the horror of desperate battle. We could smell the gun powder, feel our wet feet trying to run in the sand as we literally scurried to save our lives.  The battle scene succeeded in what Spielberg wanted it to do and that is to force us to slow down and let us viscerally feel the horror of war as well as what it feels like to be an ordinary man being asked to do extraordinary things. You did not storm the beaches of Normandy because you were wanting to per se; you did it because of the call of duty placed upon you by your nation and superiors.

            This is what Paul is getting at today. He was given a call of duty by Christ himself to go and share with anyone and everyone the good news that God so loved you and me that the Lord God became a human being so as to guarantee that wherever we find ourselves, God will be right there next to us. Paul learned through the storming of his own spiritual beach that making it safely to God’s waiting arms is not about following the rules of the Law; a life with God is about throwing all caution to the wind as we rush headlong into God’s embrace while pulling as many people along with us as we can! As we shall learn in a few minutes, this is the power of communion.

            Paul has a call placed upon him by God to share this winsome news and Paul has no choice but do it because he is under orders. If it meant he had to use the high logic, rhetoric, and background as a Jewish scholar, he would do it.  If it meant he had to take off his religious and scholarly robes to relate to the common person, he would do it.  If it meant he would bend social convention and hang out with, you know – “those kind of people” – he would do it.  Why? It’s because of what he says in verses 22 and 23:

I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save, literally – restore to wholeness and healing – those I encounter. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, the winsome news that God is with us, so that I may share in its blessings.

            Friends, Paul grew to learn in his own life as he fought his way along his own spiritual Omaha Beach that he was not more special than any other person trying to find their way to God. He learned to realize that he himself was “one of those people.” He was passionate about telling the Corinthian church that a bona fide walk with the Anointed of God is not about the rules you follow or break, it’s not solely believing in your head what your heart wants to know, it’s not about the clothes you wear or the food you eat; rather, Paul says it’s about the whimsical way we throw Jesus’ love around as we try to bring the stragglers fighting their own way across their spiritual beach – whoever they are – to the safe embrace of God.  And the thing is, Paul reminds us, is that when we do become all things to all people in order to pull them into God’s embrace, we receive a double blessing from the Lord ourselves. As Paul says, “I do it so that I may share in its blessings.”

            This morning is communion Sunday. The power in this meal, as simple as it is, is that it’s Jesus’ tangible way of showing us that Paul got it right. God became all things to all people in order that God might save some, heal some, restore some for the sake of the blessings involved. And what are those blessings for God?  God gets to love on us.  God gets to be loved-on by us. And so, God became a human being, born of a woman into a scandalous situation, and lived in poverty so that Jesus would experience everything that you and I do, including death. The Lord’s Supper is the reminder that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Anointed, of God who conquered death and invites you and me to join him and sit at the heavenly banquet table of eternal life. This is the power of communion! Amen.

© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The Call; Mark 1:14-20

A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley, January 24, 2021. 

       Last nightKelly and I sat on the back patio looking up at the sky while listening to music by Canadian pianist, Michael Jones. He has a beautiful, dancing light touch upon the keys and as I listened, the music took me outside of myself and I travelled back some thirty-seven years ago and ended up at Hunter’s Restaurant on a cold winter late Saturday morning in Highlands, North Carolina. Kelly and I lived down in the valley in Rabun Gap, Georgia at the time and the twenty-minute drive to Highlands was a nice escape. The day was very cold and gray and the warmth of this rustic restaurant with comfort food and hot coffee made for good visiting. Throughout our lunch, Michael Jones played. I will never forget that afternoon in Highlands because as we sat there talking and talking, refilling on hot coffee, we both came to the same conclusion about a life-changing decision. “Are you ready for this?” I asked her. She nodded asking me in turn, “Are you?” Swallowing hard, I meekly replied something about knowing it was what we were supposed to do but that I was scared. Our pastor’s words haunted me as he told me two weeks before, “Son, you don’t want to do this.  It’ll break your heart.”  Still, both of us knew what we had to do and that was quit our jobs and move to Decatur, Georgia and begin school at Columbia Theological Seminary. I gave my job notice and one week later discovered Kelly was pregnant with our first daughter. Every single time I hear Michael Jones I am transported back to that time when we responded to the call of Jesus to “follow me.”

            So last night, looking at the stars listening to Michael’s Jones’ Pianoscapes, I reflected upon this morning’s scripture about answering the call. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good newsof God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.[1]

            Mark outlines two different call stories in our brief text.  One is a call to general discipleship. It’s a call to all who will hear that the Kingdom of God has come near and its very presence demands that we stop where we are, reset our priorities and life to these Kingdom goals, and follow the path Jesus is laying out for us.  But there is another call story within our Story.  Yes, there is a call to discipleship but there is a call for particular service. Jesus tells them, “I will make you fishers of men and women!”

            What’s a call anyway? A call is that inner pulling confirmed by those outside of yourself that God is asking you to take a path or to step out in particular service. A call is a gift and invitation for new life; it’s also a demand that will not let you loose as Spirit compels you to transform your commitment to following Jesus into a dedication to intentionally love and serve others in his name. When Jesus calls, all of us are responding to two different calls. One is a call to follow and live like Jesus.  The second is a call to serve in his name.

            This morning, Jesus is calling out men and women from our congregation to answer a call. They were chosen by you, members of this great church, because they in their lives have indicated they have said, “YES!” to Jesus’ bidding to, “Follow me.” You have seen evidence in their lives of the gifts and graces Spirit has given them and so today, they listen to the call of Christ through you, the Church, to respond to the call of serving others in Jesus’ name.

            Like Andrew, Simon Peter, and those Zebedee boys, the folks being set aside for ordination and installation into service today are just broken, fallible followers of Jesus like you and me. One teaches piano. Another is a professor. One is a travel agent and another is businesswoman who runs and international company. Still another is a recovering addict who devotes his life to helping people get sober.  They are all ordinary people chosen by God through you to lead and nurture this Church and community in a call to service. If you were to ask any of them what they thought about their “worthiness” in answering this call to service, they each would say to a person, “I’m not qualified to be a deacon or elder but I place myself at the disposal of God’s beckoning Spirit.”  The call of God and our response to that call are both acts of grace.

            This morning as we receive our latest class of church officers, each of us is invited to reflect upon our own sense of call. Think, beloved, of the time when Jesus invited you to come and follow. How did you respond to that invitation? Have you responded to that invitation? Yet, friends, I also want you to reflect upon not only your call to follow Jesus but how you have been called out to serve Jesus in the world.

There are two calls in our Story today and both calls have to be responded to in order to live a full-life as a Christian man, woman, boy or girl. This morning, we celebrate those who are publicly responding to both!  Pray with me.

© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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A First Century Lesson for a Twenty-First Century Church; John 1:43-51

A sermon delivered by Patrick H. Wrisley on 1/17/2021.

            A first century lesson for a twenty-first century Church.  Will we take heed and listen to it? It’s not a difficult lesson to learn and it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn since the Church is facing a time of unprecedented uncertainty. 

            Speaking with another local pastor recently, he asked me, “Patrick, do you think they’re ever going to come back?”  I pressed him a bit to better understand what he was asking. He went on to tell me that he fears his people have become too comfortable waking up in their jammies and flipping on the TV and will never come back to the worshipping community once the pandemic is over.  I smiled at him and said, “You know, I’m hopeful. The pushback I’m receiving for having to suspend in-person worship again because the rolling two week average for positivity rates in Broward County is over 10% tells me people are missing and longing for community!” I reminded him that unprecedented times calls for unprecedented measures and that for safety’s sake, this is but a momentary separation and is all temporary. I learned long ago that a Church is not a building but a living, breathing, Holy Spirit-driven group of people taking what they gather from community and spreading it in the world.

            Even so, my friend’s question points us to the lesson we can learn from the first century Church in these unprecedented times and it’s a lesson straight from our Story in John’s Gospel today.  Turn to John 1 and we will pick up with verse 43.

            Thus far in John’s Story, John has described how the Divine Logos was born into our world via Jesus. We are then introduced to a passionate preacher named John the Baptist who points people to the Lamb of God, who is Jesus.  A few disciples listen to John and follow Jesus and one of them, Andrew, goes home to his brother, Simon, and simply says, “You won’t believe who I met!”  Simon goes to find out for himself and gets a new name: Rocky[1]. The very next day, we come to our morning’s text. Listen for the Word of the Lord!

John 1:43-51

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”[2]

            Church, are you hearing this first-century lesson we are to be learning in the twenty-first century church? Here in the first chapter of John’s Story we get glimpses of the Church’s birth and growth. It’s John’s version of the Church’s creation Story. The Church’s creation did not begin with mass crusades preceded by fancy marketing campaigns and gimmicks. There were no special tricks or techniques for learning how to successfully plant a church in 90 days; no, we learn today the Church began, like the universe began, with the speaking of the Word, the Logos at creation.  “Let there be light! and there was Light.”  And John reminds us that the Word that spoke Creation into the form of the man Jesus. And from the speaking about the Word, the Church began to take form itself. First, one brother speaks words to his own brother about Jesus and then that brother explores those words on his own. The first lesson we get is that in the first-century Church, the Living Word of Jesus was spoken about in the home among people who were related to one another.

            What is the second lesson we hear? We learn that when Philip hears the Story and is introduced to the Word he goes and finds a friend of his and shares what he has discovered for himself. Again, Philip simply tells his bookish friend, Nathaniel, that the one Nathaniel is looking for in all his books is nearby. Philip doesn’t delve into providing proofs or theological abstracts to his friend, Nathaniel. No, he simply models what Jesus said first to Andrew, “Come and see.”

            Come and see.  Now that’s about as a heavy-handed form of evangelism as I’ve ever heard of in my life!

            Come and see.

            Philip didn’t tell Nathaniel, “If you don’t repent, you’re going to hell!”  He didn’t say, “If you don’t believe just like me, you’ve missed the boat!”  He didn’t say, “If you don’t come, you’re a loser and are hopeless.” No, he simply related what he has experienced and invites someone he knows, i.e. Nathaniel, and meets him where he is (in the books) and simply says, “Come and see.” 

            It’s funny to note that when Nathaniel hears Philip the first words out of his mouth were a skosh cynical.  “Can anything good out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel mutters. Nathaniel was from Cana and Nazareth was a seen as a backwater dot on the map a mere four miles away to the west.  Nothing good comes from there! The Messiah doesn’t come from a place that would be the equivalent of Clewiston, Florida!

            Philip simply replies, “Come and see.”

            Beloved, we may be physically distanced from each other during our time of worship but we are hearing the Word where you we eat, sleep and live – at home! This is where the Church began centuries ago! It began in the family rooms of homes when people spoke the Word – think, Stories – to those they already had a relationship with! Andrew didn’t force his brother to believe, he simply shared what he experienced and let Peter decide what to do with it.

            Spouses with pre-Christian partners, don’t try to convert him or her; just authentically be like Jesus yourself.  Parents with children, don’t beat your kids over the head about the faith, simply read them the biblical stories, remember the true meaning of the holidays, and tell them about Jesus. Say your prayers at mealtimes and bedtimes. All these simple acts are creating and building the Church!

            Philip meets Nathaniel where Nathaniel is most comfortable and at home and for Nathaniel it was knowing the sacred books of Jewish scripture. All Philip did was tease Nathaniel with, “I’ve met the one you are reading about in those Books of Moses…Come and see.”  Friends, Philip didn’t force Nathaniel to conform to his understanding of who Jesus was; on the contrary, Philip met his cynical friend at the point of his cynicism and invites Nathaniel to discover his own response to the meeting of Jesus.

            The first chapter of John’s Gospel outlines the lesson of the birth of the early church. As scholar Dale Bruner notes, “The Church’s birth begins with a preacher’s honest enthusiasm (John the Baptist), it continues with family sharing (Andrew to Peter), and it comes full-term in a friendly, enthusiastic conversation.”[3] 

            This my friends is the first-century lesson to the twenty-first century church. The Church of Jesus Christ grows when its members are stuck in their pandemic homes with family and are ensconced safely with their pandemic buddies trying to create a new normal for life. Are the words about Jesus and your spiritual walk winsome and inviting so those pandemic buddies can see beyond the chaos of this present moment to see the new life you are experiencing right now? Are we trying to convince those we know they must believe MY Story or are we inviting them to come along with us and discover their own?

            You, beloved, are the seeds for the growth of the Church. The question as to whether or not people will come back to the churches when this pandemic is over will be determined whether you and I are sharing those seeds with people we know and rub shoulders with every single day. If the churches across this country remain empty, then we have to wonder if it’s because you and I are really not that excited about our new life in Jesus after all. Do you want the Church to grow? Do you want others to experience the new life in Christ as you have? Then simply repeat these three words to people you know already: Come and see.


© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John. A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans’s Publishing Company, 2012), 116.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Bruner, 109.

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Emerging from the Chaos, Genesis 1:1-5

A sermon by the Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

It’s late one summer afternoon and there is a storm building in the distance,  There is nothing like an afternoon thunderstorm while at the beach. All our senses are alive: You taste the salt in the air; you can smell the storm as it approaches; you hear the wind pick up and thunder beginning to rumble in the distance; you see the miles high clouds begin to collapse into a wall of dark grayish blue; and you can begin to feel the wind and rain once the storm begins. Can you experience this moment?

Now, imagine you have two friends with you during all this. One is a scientist, a meteorologist in fact. The other friend is a poet. How would each describe the storm to you? The scientist will describe what she sees and explain in great details how two convergent fronts have slammed together which causes this or that to happen and would give rational explanations to why you are experiencing all those sensations with your senses. Contrast with how a poet like Billy Collins might describe the experience. The poet’s description may not be as scientifically factual as the meteorologist’s but it’s no less beautiful or true. They are both looking at the same, singular event through two different lenses. Both see the same thing but how they describe it is based upon their point of view.

This morning’s text is from the very opening scene in the Bible in Genesis. There are two different creation stories in the first two chapters of the Bible. People’s tendency to read these stories as science overshadows the power of the Creation’s deeper meaning and purpose; I propose we return to reading the Creation accounts as they were first meant to be read; not as science per se but rather as poetry. When we do so, we move beyond ‘just the facts’ and we begin to experience the deeper questions and issues that arise from scripture with all our faculties.

This morning’s reading is the very first paragraph from the first creation account. Its beauty and power come from its simplicity. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.[1]

A scientist will talk about the sequence of events – could this have happened in this particular order? Who or what is “God” in this story? Was there an inky darkness before there was light? Is this describing the BIG BANG?

A poet, however, revels in the story simply for what it describes. A poet doesn’t try to define God’s reality but simply accepts that in the story there is a Divine Other who is a cause and is a part of our cosmic order; he or she ponders on a God who is intentional in its participation with this new creation. The poet notes that this Divine Other, or God, is giving attention to the details in the creation itself. The poet sees God as not some un-phased unmoved Mover but rather sees a God who is an artist who cannot help but create and the more It creates, invitations are given for other things, and eventually people, to enter into the artistry of Creation.

In the beginning, God created. Ponder on the beauty and the wonder of those words! Presbyterian pastor and biblical linguist, the late Eugene Peterson, has a beautiful paraphrase of these opening lines that really capture what the Hebrew says. He describes it:

1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.[2]

The older versions of the text used to use the word ‘brood’ instead of the NRSV’s ‘swept over.’[3] I think brood is a better option because to brood over means you hover over, flutter over in an unhurried way and manor.  It’s a though God flitted and slowly fluttered about looking at all aspects of the chaotic void like a humming bird and began to piece together a loving tapestry of order and life from the inky blackness. From the swirling primordial ooze of nothingness and chaos God creates life and beauty.  And as we read the entire creation account in chapter 1, we see that God took God’s time in doing it. Creation takes an intentional process and careful attention, and though it does take time, all that process and work is heading somewhere to fulfillment.

Today throughout the worldwide Church, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus on this first Sunday after Epiphany.  It’s a Sunday where once again we remind ourselves that the Spirit of God enters into our realm of time and claims that Jesus is the One. For the people in the first century, God was Creating a new order of relating with His beloved. God anoints Jesus and declares him His Son. So both of our Stories today are how God intentionally sets order in the midst of the cosmic chaos as well as in the midst of cultural, religious, economic and political chaos through Jesus.  

The Good News of our faith reminds us that God is still creating now.  The Good News of our faith is that God is still brooding over our lives and our swirly, chaotic world and is still intentionally bringing order, life from the midst of the void and chaos. God did this at Creation and we believe God is still involved with us through the Spirit of Jesus today.

Why do I bring all this up? Because we need a reminder that God baptizes and claims his creation and our world.  God is a very present help in moments of trouble. God indeed is that rock and refuge, that fortress of strength and protection we can retreat into. But we also know that God will lead us out from behind our protective walls into a chaotic, seemingly void-less world where God empowers us through Spirit to create beauty and form. But here’s the deal: We are to be just as strategic and intentional about it as God was, is, and will be!

Friends, let’s all stop and take a breath. With high hopes that COVID, racial strife, economic hardship and Karen-induced entitlement would be in the rearview mirror by now, 2021 has proven to be an ongoing of 2020.  Like my brother told me yesterday, he refuses to call this a new year and proclaims that we are still living in the 41st day of December 2020!

This week, our nation and the world gasped and watched chaos unfold before our eyes at our nation’s Capital. Conspiracies abound with the events that took place leading up to this week and how what should be one of the most secured buildings in the world become violated. Our nation is tired. We are scratching our heads wondering why and how.  Friends, our text today speaks words of comfort and challenge to us.

Our Story reminds us that God is present with us, brooding over this mess of a world of ours and is thoughtfully, patiently, painstakingly creating form and purpose from the chaos. The Baptism of Jesus reminds us for both our national and personal need to repent; it reminds us to shed the ways of chaos and enter into the work of creating new realities with God.  Our texts today are demanding that you and I cease being idle bystanders in the bleachers beside the chaos and dive into it with the Spirit’s wings and brood over, flutter over, hover over the chaos waters and see what we can do nationally, as a church community and as a personal follower of Jesus to bring order out of disorder.

You can try to say, “I can’t do anything about the pandemic or Washington politics!”  God says, “Nuts! Brood over, contemplate over your part of the world and be a part of weaving order from disorder; you can wear a mask and keep your distance from folks; you can enter into dialogue instead of diatribe with those of different political leanings than you; you can control what you post on social media and assess if you are a problem in fanning the flames of chaos or not.” 

Beloved, for the next minute of silence, I want each of us to enter into a time of contemplation asking the Spirit to reveal to each of us how we can be a part of weaving our chaos into a tapestry of grace.  I want the Spirit to haunt each of us as we reflect on how we are passively part of the problem or are we actively hovering over the chaos trying to bring it form and beauty.  Church, it’s time we quit blaming “those other people” and take responsibility ourself. Pray with me.

© 2021, January 10, 2021. Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] The Message.

[3] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 1 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (p. 325). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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