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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The Message: The Big Reveal!, Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany

A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley, January 3, 2021

The popular trend of gender reveals has taken off in our country.  This is when a young couple is expecting a child and they throw a party to reveal whether the baby is a boy or girl. The big reveals can come with a simple cutting of a cake to reveal blue or pink filling but they’ve lately become quite elaborate and in some instances, flat out dangerous! 

One couple used fireworks to reveal their baby’s gender and it resulted in the El Dorado fire in California this September that took the lives of 25 people and burned upwards of 8,000 acres. Another woman died when a piece of metal hit her in the head after her family’s exploding reveal party because they unintentionally built a homemade pipe-bomb! The favorite one I saw was a Florida Man who gathered his friends to circle around a ten foot gator.  Florida Man kept swatting the gator on the nose to get it to open its mouth so the man could toss a Jell-O-infused watermelon into its mouth so when the gator bit down, either pink or blue Jell-O would fill the gator’s mouth. In the video I watched, the gator was none-too-pleased. I am not sure if these reveal parties say more about the parents’ ability to be parents or the revelation the child’s sex.[1]

Our text this morning is a Story of a Big Reveal as well. It’s not a gender reveal but it is a revealing, an unveiling, that led to locally tragic events later in Matthew 2 but reveled wonderful cosmic revelations. We know this as the Story of the Magi. Listen to Matthew 2.1-12!

Matthew 2:1-12

2.1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.[2]

Historically, Church has wrapped the Three Kings story up into the Christmas narrative which is unfortunate. First, it throws the timing off of the real events which took possibly a year or so after Jesus’ birth. The magi, or astrologers, from modern Iraq or Iran would have taken several months to travel on foot to get to Bethlehem.  We tend to think they showed up the night after the shepherds did at the manger. Second, we tend to focus on the three gifts they bring the baby because we associate gifts with the Christmas story. This is unfortunate because it draws attention away from the real thrust of the Story which is the Big Reveal as opposed to gift giving. The Big Reveal has a technical name; the Church calls it Epiphany.

Let us look at the Epiphanies, the several unveilings and revelations in our text. We are going to do this by looking at the Story’s characters and then reflect upon how our personal epiphanies shape us. As we look at these, I want to plant the nagging voice in the back of your mind, “Where am I in this Story? What are the revelations, the unveilings, the ah-ha’s God has for me? How do my epiphanies affect my discipleship?”

The first key to unlocking our text is to look at the characters in our Story. There are essentially three main characters and they are the Magi, King Herod, and the baby Jesus. Three different realities are exposed in and through each of these characters. The Magi, pagan astrologers who were in search of Truth were led by God’s grace to discover that even they, if they are sincere in learning and worshipping God and not the stars, will be accepted and received into God’s covenant family. Our Story reveals that God takes people where they are, even those outside the covenant family of Israel, and they can be adopted into the family if they worship the Christ. The Story reveals the ultimate outsider can be embraced as God’s insider.

The next character is King Herod. When Herod hears these emissaries from the East are looking to worship a new king, you and I can begin to see how our human nature often responds to God’s Divine Intentions: We push back. God’s impending presence makes us squirm a bit; it should make us uncomfortable but sadly, most times it does not.  At least Herod understood the ramifications of what a young, new king would mean for his own leadership! It forces you and me to ponder on how we encounter God’s presence and revelations in our own lives. Perhaps God’s revealing and unveiling his presence and purpose in our lives should make us quake in our boots a little bit.  Maybe we need to think of what it means to have a new claim on our lives from a leader in but not of this world. The whole irony about Herod and his religious leaders is the people who should see what’s going on didn’t. Those to whom it would have been easiest to check out the facts, i.e. the religious officials in Jerusalem, did not go six miles to Bethlehem to find out for themselves. Those who should’ve been excited, the Jewish nation and their leaders, were instead afraid and anxious and their anxiety reveals the object of their true worship which is a corrupt king and safety of the status quo. It makes us stop and reflect on what our own anxieties reveal about what or whom we worship!

And finally, we have the character Jesus.  Jesus gloriously reveals that God is with us. God has pierced time and space and now resides alongside his beloved children.  Three epiphanies revealed in each of the three characters: God loves and searches for the outcast, the ‘pagan’; Herod reveals to us that our human tendency to push back on God’s new revelations and presence; and the cooing baby Jesus, nursing upon Mary’s breast, reveals to us that God is truly among us, not in the rich and mighty, but with the poor and the humble.

Next, let’s shift a moment a reflect upon how the Magi’s epiphany, how the Big Reveal they experienced shaped them as people and what it says about you and me.  For the Magi, the unveiling and the discovery of who God really was changed their lives.  Once they discovered the true Source of worship, everything in their lives were turned upside down.As scholar James Howell writes, “We have (before us) a blueprint for what happens in our discipleship. Once we find the Christ, we worship him and go back home a different way, (on) a different road. We have to roll out new maps to (in order to) look for new routes.”[3]

To put it bluntly, when we encounter and see the revelation of Jesus in our lives, our lives will either remain the same and we become like Herod and the religious officials who are diffident and uncomfortable or our lives will be transformed and the old ways we live, see, encounter and journey in life will fall away.  As Jesus is revealed to us, we become changed people and the old roads we once took loose their luster and need. We strike out on new roads because we know the old roads are not safe or beneficial anymore because Herod is on the prowl.

T.S. Eliot in his beloved poem, The Journey of the Magi, has one of the Magi reflect this way on his journey home after going to Bethlehem:          

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.[4]

Beloved, our Story today reminds us that when God is revealed to us in Jesus, we are forced to respond in some way. We either remain cynical, crusty Herods or we become uneasy Magi who realize that meeting Jesus changes everything, even the roads we take home and the people we encounter on the way. God give us all a radical, transforming epiphany revealing the Lord Christ to each of us where we need to see him.  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 https://people.com/human-interest/gender-reveals-gone-wrong-videos/.

[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] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[4] T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi. See https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/journey-magi.

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The Pastoral Prayer for First Sunday After Christmas, December 27, 2020

Timeless God, Ancient of Days, You have bowed and pierced time and space and have personally entered into our human realm and dared to live among us. The Angel Gabriel reminds us that there is nothing that is impossible with the Lord Almighty, and we tenaciously grasp to that hope with both hands. In the flurries of our anxious world, we look for the peace that only the babe of Mary can provide. Help us to let go of what occupies our minds and hearts, enable us to still the noises of the world and the negative self-talk in our heads so that we can hear the coos of the sweet baby’s breath. For little Aubrey’s baptism today that reminds us you stand and eagerly await for your children to become part of the family, we thank you! For those of us new on this walk with Christ, be born in our hearts this day. For those of us who have journeyed long on this pilgrimage of faith, be reborn in our hearts. For the Church you have set in the midst of a broken and shadowy world, be reborn in us today!  For nothing is impossible with You!

Jesus, we celebrate the respite of joy the last few days as we have celebrated your birth. We acknowledge that for some, joy may have been elusive due to illness, the death of a loved-one, or the lingering memories of a deceased husband, wife, son or daughter who are no longer at the dinner table and whose stocking, although hung with care, is no longer filled. We are mindful of those families who are on a death-watch for a loved-one who is about to enter Easter. We pray for the elderly whose minds are tormented with dementia and for their caregivers who are exhausted and show unintentional  impatience. We come and pray for all our medical personnel – doctors, nurses, technicians, lab workers, and paramedics – all who are placing their lives on the line as this pandemic seems to burn unchecked through our nation and world. We humbly ask, Jesus, that you would be reborn in the hearts, lives and minds of our national, state, and local leaders in the form of justice and mercy for the ones struggling to pay rent, eat, and educate their children today; replace rancorous politics with broken hearts for the least of these our brothers and sisters among us. For Lord, nothing is impossible with you!

© 2020 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.

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What if Mary said, “No”?, Luke 1:26-38

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

We are slowly making our way through Advent and now the ship is turning towards Christmas. We have dallied through the last three weeks looking at the promise of God’s coming at the culmination of time; we have spent the last two weeks with the character of John the Baptist and his call for us to prepare for the coming Messiah and that as we prepare, we are to remember that it really is good news, joyful news. Finally, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we begin to hear about those parts of the Story that sound and feel, well, more Christmassy.

Today we are reading from Luke’s Gospel in chapter 1 beginning with verse 26. One of Luke’s writing techniques is that he likes to tell stories in pairs that have similar meanings but with different and inclusive characters.  For example, he will tell a story about a rich person and then couple that with a story about a poor person.  He will tell a parable about a Jew and then follow that up with a parable about a Gentile. We see this habit in his style as early as chapter 1.

Luke begins his gospel in the Temple in Jerusalem. We meet a man who is a Levite and was called to fulfill his duty in helping out with the Temple operations. He was one of many conscripted Levitical priests who would take turns in offering sacrifices up to God on behalf the Jewish people. In the midst of his service, an angel tells him, “Zechariah, you’re an old man and your wife is way past menopause but let me tell you, y’all are going to be parents to a young firebrand named John and he will get people ready for the Lord’s coming!” So, left totally speechless by the angel’s news, Zechariah returns home, gets his elderly wife, Elizabeth, and they go into seclusion for five months due to her unexpected pregnancy.  This is where we pick up with today’s text.

Luke 1:26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. [1]

            This is the Story of the Annunciation, i.e. the Announcement from Gabriel that Mary will bear a child of and from God. Our Catholic sisters and brothers use the words from Gabriel as the foundation for the beginning of their prayer, “Hail Mary, Mother full of grace!” In some Christian traditions, Mary is portrayed as a larger than life, almost other-worldly figure whose face is often depicted in art with painted lines of deep sadness and pain in her expression; there are not a lot of smiling portrayals of Mary out there. Being the Mother of God is serious business, you know!  We Protestants, on the other hand, see Mary’s role much more simply; she is the pure birthmother of Jesus because every baby that’s born must have a mother; it’s a practical thing.  Church tradition has painted Mary as the archetypical spiritual woman who is obedient, works hard, and nurtures new generations of God-followers. She hears the angel’s words and she obeys.   

She’s a good girl.

Unfortunately, we get so wrapped up in Mary’s purity and virginity that we fail to miss the point that it’s her virginity along with Elizabeth’s postmenopausal barrenness that point to verse 37 where Gabriel declares, “Nothing is impossible with God!” and that God is coming to do a new thing.

History has made Mary this passive, submitting, demure figure who just goes along with whatever is told of her. I wonder if we rob something from Mary when we do this to her. Even more, I wonder if we rob something from God at the same time.

Beloved, the power in John’s opening Stories is that God comes and calls the nobodies to be the vehicles for doing great, world-changing things for “the everybody’s”!  Let’s not forget that both Elizabeth and Mary never set out to become spiritual giants of the Bible. In her life, Elizabeth failed in her duty to bring progeny to Zechariah’s Levitical family line. In her life, Mary, possibly somewhere between 13 to 18 years-old at the time, was more than likely set up in an arranged marriage with Joseph after her dad negotiated with Joseph or his father to take her as a wife.  We forget that Mary is a young girl who had her own dreams. She had personal feelings of joy and sorrow. She experienced anxiety and doubts. And in all of this glorious Christmas preparation, we tend to forget that Mary has a voice. Mary had a choice whether or not to be a part of this grand Story! And the Good News in that is that you and I do, too!

Have you ever thought about the fact that Mary could have said “no” to what the angel was saying? Gabriel was painting a future for Mary that  she could’ve said ‘no’ to living into. I like what Princeton professor Eric Barreto says, “Perhaps the angel needs Mary to say yes. Perhaps because the angel came bearing a question more than a command. Thus Mary responds with full voice in verse 38, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.””  Professor Barreto goes on to say,

Mary chooses to embrace this call, to become a prophet who will bear the Savior of the world in both voice and body. In Luke’s narration, Mary’s consent is an act of radical faithfulness, belief, (and) discipleship. In accepting this promise, Mary becomes the first to believe the good news of Jesus…when her body nurtures a baby who will turn the world upside down.”[2]

Mary had a choice. “Do I say “yes” to this radical proposition, or do I pass on it?”  If she said, “No, I’ll pass” then God would be brokenhearted, but being God, would and find another woman that would follow the invitation in faith and trust. Mary’s potential refusal cannot overpower God’s sovereignty and will. Yet we see that God loves Mary enough to risk the refusal of the question. God takes a risk by having Gabriel approach this teenaged country girl. That, in and of itself says quite a bit about the character of God! You may say, “Well, God already knew what Mary would do!” and I reply back, “Sure enough, but God loved her enough to let her make it her decision!”  God took a risk in having Gabriel ask the question and Mary took a risk in replying, “Here am I.”

Being the romantic guy I am, when I proposed to Kelly back in the early-eighties on Thanksgiving Day, I took a post-dinner walk with her near my mom’s subdivision. I led her out into this vast cow pasture with evidence of the cows all about us, and I knelt down and asked her to marry me.  I had a feeling she would say “yes” but I still needed her to say it for herself.  I couldn’t force Kelly to live happily-ever-after with me as that would be abusive.  I had to trust her enough, love her enough, to answer the question on her own. There was a risk in my asking her to marry me because she might say ‘no’ but there was also a risk on her part if she said yes! Ha!

Our biblical text today reminds us God sends Archangels and messengers to ordinary folk like you and me. God see opportunities in your life and mine that we cannot see because of where we are. And Mary reminds us that in this season of new birth and new beginnings, God is sending us messengers asking us to step out in a call or in faith to a task that may seem impossible to us right now but if we only said, ‘Yes, Lord, here am I!” we could turn the world upside down by bearing Jesus into the world in our own small way.

Listen! Just as God called Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary to do the seemingly impossible, God is calling you to do the same. Today is not just Mary’s Annunciation, it’s ours as well. What is the Ancient of Days asking of you? What is your answer to that call?

Pray with me…

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 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] Joel B Green. Connections: Year B, Volume 1 (Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship) (Article by Eric D. Barreto, pp. 138-139). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 

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A Joy that’s Down in My Heart!, John 1:6-8, 19-28

A sermon by Patrick H. Wrisley

John 1:6-8,19-28

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light…

…19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
     “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
          ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.

24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.[1]

Gaudete Sunday, Joy Sunday, seems an odd day to have a profile snapshot of John the Baptizer but the framers of the lectionary knew what they were doing. This morning, we are going to look at the relationship between John the Baptizer and joy, look at what joy is, and then see how we can apply it to our own pandemically roiled lives.

Now think with me a moment of John the Baptizer.  Is he the type of guy you would want to invite to your Christmas party? What’s our world’s prima facia opinion on John? Would he be considered the life of the party or perceived as a major Debbie-downer?  The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – paint an entirely different picture of John the Baptizer in their gospel Stories than does John the Evangelist’s gospel.

In John the Evangelist’s Story, the Baptizer is not so abrasive, abrupt or antagonistic as in the other gospel accounts. John the Baptist is not running around yelling at people, “You brood of vipers” or “Who warned you of the wrath to come!?”  He does not demand people to repent or face the consequences of a vengeful God. John the Baptizer in John the Evangelist’s gospel is portrayed in a different way.  He simply shows up on the scene.

The confrontations begin when skeptical religious officials from Jerusalem cajole a bunch priests and Levites, i.e., those who helped out around the Temple as their social responsibility, to go check out John the Baptizer and see what he’s up to down by the riverside. They pepper the Baptizer with four questions: Twice they ask him, “Who are you?” Then they ask if he is Elijah. Then they ask if he is the great prophet along the lines of a new Moses come to lead the people out of slavery. Finally, they ask him what’s all this baptizing going on; what it’s all about?

We get the feeling that John is minding his own business when a group of agitators come from the capital and start stirring things up. The Baptizer does everything he can to point away from himself and John fails to succumb to the temptation of stepping into the limelight. Without hesitation, he declares –

I am not the Messiah.

I am not the great prophet Elijah who has come back.

I am not the neo-prototype super prophet like our father Moses.

I am a voice that comes from a very humble, unpretentious man who serves on God’s Advance Team to help the people in their preparations for the Coming One.

I am the one who is getting the road straightened out, prepping the highway from the east to become smoother and easier to navigate for the coming king who will lead us out of our bondage, brokenness and Divine alienation.

I am the one who comes to the children of God, like a wet-nurse, to give you food to strengthen your weak soul and spirit and ensures you are all cleaned up for when your momma arrives.

I am the one who is to identify the One who is already standing in this very group of people who will bring redemption to Israel!

I am the one who is bringing great news, joyous news – not heavy, bad or lugubrious news that you better get ready or else!

John the Evangelist portrays John the Baptizer in a diametrically different way than the other gospel writers do.  John’s word in the fourth gospel are words that inspire hope, excitement, and generates joy! Why do I say that?  Look with me at verse 23: John is quoting the Hebrew prophet Isaiah from Isaiah 40.3 when he says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!”  You might look at me and say, “Well, so what?”  Go ahead and ask me together! “Well, so what?”

I’m glad you asked! You see, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that for the most part, many of us don’t know our Bibles very well. As a result, we miss the fact that the words John the Baptizer quotes from the prophet Isaiah are very important words.  You see, the Hebrew Book of Isaiah has three major movements to it. In the first movement, there is the condemnation of people because they have forsaken the Lord God and there will be consequences for those actions.  The second movement in Isaiah’s Story is that because of the peoples’ rejection of God, they will be taken into exile by a foreign occupier.  The third movement in Isaiah’s Story occurs in Isaiah 40 which speaks of God’s running to the people of Israel and wants to bring them back home victoriously. It’s a movement in Isaiah’s Story that reminds Israel that God is not done with them yet and that indeed, God himself will be coming to redeem and liberate his beloved.  Hear the first words from Isaiah 40 and dare to tell me these words would not elicit incredible joy within you and the nation:

1Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

            Are these bad news words? No! They are joyous words! They remind us that God, in the midst of the turmoil of enslavement and exile that there is a joyous, deeply rooted hope and expectation that God is present and God comes to rescue. It’s as though the Baptizer were standing on the walls of Jerusalem pointing East saying, “Look, brothers and sisters! Here comes the Lord God himself over the brow of the Mount of Olives! Make his way straight!”

            Beloved, it’s important not to confuse joy with happiness. Our happiness is determined by external circumstances. If something good happens to us, we’re happy.  If not, we’re sad.  Joy is different. Joy is an attitude a person has and a way a person lives life. Joy is a seat that one takes and observes the world and life with the mindset, “The storms of my life are severe, painful, and scary but in the midst of my pain, in the midst of my anxious fear, I have abiding joy that I am not left alone and that God is with me come hell or high water.

Come COVID or cancer –

Come divorce or separation –

Come layoffs or dismissals –

Come failing grades or disrupted social routines –

Come economic downturns or political upheaval –

Regardless of whatever befalls me in a way that demeans, dehumanizes, or delegitimizes me, I know that I know that I know that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 8, nothing can separate me, you, any of us from the passionate love of God in Jesus Christ! This is what John the Baptist is trying to get us to remember today.  This is what joy is! This is why we have our joy!

Humor me just a little. I am going to start singing and I want you to join in with me. This is a reminder from our teachers at Happy Land.

I have the joy, joy, joy, joy

Down in my heart (where?)

Down in my heart (where?)

Down in my heart!

I have the joy, joy, joy, joy, joy

Down in my heart, (where?)

Down in my heart to stay!

And with that, Amen!

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., Senior Pastor and Teaching Elder, First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, 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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