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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Advent 1: Don’t Get Dis’ed at Christmas!, Mark 13:24-37

Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min. Location: First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Date: November 29, 2020

            Well, happy new year to you!  Today we are beginning a new Christian Liturgical year as we commence the season of Advent. Advent, which means ‘the coming’, is the four-week time prior to Christmas day where Christians the world over make plans to get ready for the coming of the newborn Christ-child. The birth of Jesus reminds us how God personally comes onto our worldly stage and shows us how to live and love. Advent is all about getting ready and prepared for a new house guest who we want to feel comfortable and loved in our heart’s homes when the baby Jesus is born Christmas Day. The little baby’s birth is just one advent, or coming, we are preparing for the next month.  Lest we forget, this season of Advent asks you and me to pause and remember two separate advents or comings.

            Traditionally, the very first Sunday in Advent is the time the Church remembers, not the birth of Jesus, but the second coming of Jesus at the fulfilment of time. This second advent is known by many names in our popular culture such as “The Rapture” (which is a word that isn’t even in our Bible), “The End Times” (which is an oxymoron to a follower of Jesus because for us the Eternal Time is just beginning!) or “The Judgement” (which in and of itself sounds like a lugubrious affair). Personally, I would rather call it as Scripture calls it in today’s lesson in verse 27, “The Gathering.”

            As you hear the scripture today, remember the setting. Just like Matthew’s gospel, Mark has Jesus doing rounds with the religious scholars, leaders and social leaders in the Temple area. Mark 13 has him leave Jerusalem and we find him privately speaking to four of his disciples: Andrew, Peter, James, and John.  The writer of the Gospel is inviting you and me into this intimate conversation with Jesus and the four future pillars of the early church. All of Mark 13 is dealing with The Gathering and what it will be like leading up to that point. Jesus is telling them in essence, “Better buckle up, boys, things are about to get a little dicey!” Hear the Word of the Lord!

Mark 13:24-37

24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that heis near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”[1]

            We first have Jesus quoting well-known Hebrew prophetic scripture from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Daniel describing what it will be like at The Gathering. He then tells his disciples to read the signs of the times to better understand its arrival. And then Jesus peppers them with the call to be on guard and alert, keep watchful and expectant. In other words, “Peter, Andrew, James and John, you’d better buckle up!”

            Frankly, none of this sounds very ‘Christmassy’ to me; it’s all rather jolting and unsettling. Why does the tradition of the Church begin the new Christian calendar at this point? Why are we starting with the second advent or coming first?

            Years ago, best-selling author Stephen Covey wrote a book called, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.  He says successful people first develop the habit of being proactive instead of be reactive. In other words, it’s a reminder that leaders are to take initiative.  The second habit Covey espouses is that we are to keep the end in mind. By this, he means we are to envision what it’s like when we have accomplished what we have set out to do.  I learned this trick from my high school English teacher, Charlotte Richter, who told us that if we want to better understand a book, read the first chapter and then immediately read the last chapter right away so you have a better idea of what to look for in the story’s flow in between the two.   

            Beloved, we start our Christian year off with the end in mind because it helps us calibrate the rhythm for the rest of our year, and in a real sense, the rest of our earthly life. We begin with the “last chapter” of The Gathering because it will help us to better understand and assimilate the events of our lives before then.  Like an overture to a beautiful symphony that sets out the entire musical score that is carried out throughout the piece of music, so we are invited on this first Sunday of Advent to remember the overall score of our Christian redemptive Story.

            Now, you do know the notes of our Christian overture, don’t you?  There are four themes running through the Judeo-Christian Story. If you don’t know these, you need to write them down as it helps you see how the whole Bible fits  together. The first theme is God establishing relationship with his creation. The second theme is humankind’s rejection of that relationship with God. The third theme is exile from community with God.  But the fourth theme is that God searches out, hurts for, and takes the initiative to restore relationship with the exiled ones. Relationship, rejection, exile, and restoration is the ever-repeating overture that plays over and over and over again in the biblical narrative from Genesis through Revelation and through each of our own lives as well.

            So, on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin with the end in mind.  We begin with reminding ourselves that ultimately, God takes the initiative to bring his children back home, to restore the lost ones at the Great Gathering. Why begin there? Because, my friends, Jesus has reminded his four closest friends that it’s time to buckle up as it’s going to be tough going between now and when the Gathering takes place.  He is reminding you and me that we are to be on the lookout and anticipate the Great Gathering because in doing so, we are given hope to keep on keeping on. Keep watch, stay awake. Have hope! There’s more to the Story!

            We begin with the second Advent first, we begin with the end in mind first, because if we lose sight of it, we will succumb to the Four Disses: DIS-couragement; DIS-illusionment; DIS-interest; and DIS-avowal.

            Reminding ourselves that God’s relationship and desire with people is for restoration, we will prevent ourselves from getting discouraged. There is so much in our world that makes us discouraged right now ranging from the pandemic to ugly politics.  It’s easy to lose courage and strength at the moment and it quickly swirls into the second Dis-, Disillusionment. Discouragement leads to disillusionment.  We do not think we can make a difference in the world. We become cynical and fed up with it all. When that happens, we slip into Disinterest. Disillusionment breeds disinterest which is the fertile soil for apathy to grow. Why go and vote? My vote will not matter.  Why give to the Church? What I give won’t make a difference. Why bother to worship? No one will notice if I attend or tune-in or not. Why bother to help serve? They have enough volunteers.

            Discouragement leads to disillusionment which leads to disinterest which ultimately leads to disavowal. We lull ourselves into thinking God doesn’t care or doesn’t exist so why bother trying to live a Christ-following life? We begin to disavow our relationships with our neighbor and place ourselves as our life’s number one priority. When we begin getting so clouded we disavow our love for God and for our neighbor as ourselves, we become sickly selfish.

            So, Jesus reminds us.

            So, Jesus says, “Be on guard!  Be alert!  Stay awake! Begin with the end in mind! Buckle up because I’m not leaving you alone! Yes, things seem pretty difficult right now, but remember, I have already overcome the world!”

            This, my friends, is why we remember the Second Advent first. We know the end of the Story which gives us optimism and hope to thwart any discouragement, disillusionment, disinterest, and disavowal our swirly lives tries to foist on us.  We have hope in The Gathering.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder

First Presbyterian Church

401 SE 15th Avenue

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. 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 Message: Matthew’s Second Set of “Blessed Ares…”

Scripture:     Matthew 25:31-46  

Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Location:      First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale        

Date:             November 22, 2020

Today, we’re reading what has been called the Sermon on the Judgment, or as the preacher that married Kelly and me 37 years ago calls it, “The Sermon on the Last Audit.”[1]   It’s about how all of us will appear before Christ at the end of time and provide an accounting on how we shared our God-given blessings with the everyday people we encounter.  If you will reach back in your mind and remember, you will recall that Matthew’s gospel begins with a list of blessings promised to us by God in the Sermon on the Mount beginning in chapter 5. In the beginning of his Story, Jesus’ first public teaching is when he goes over a list of “blessed ares” like the meek, those who endure suffering, the poor, the peacemakers and the like.  Today’s reading, indeed, Jesus’ final teaching of his ministry, also contain a list of “blessed ares” but they are a bit more subtle to find.  As you hear the text, listen for the “blessed are the” in his final teaching. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 25:31- 46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[2]

            Today is the final Sunday for the Christian liturgical year.  In many ways, it the Church’s New Year’s Eve.  Matthew’s Gospel begins in darkness with a baby born in a manger at night and now it ends with that baby-now-Christ-of-God sitting at the fulfillment of time to usher the faithful home. Interestingly enough, there will be those who are grossly disappointed when they learn they didn’t make the cut to move into the sheep line.  Assuming all their lives that they were sheep people, they quickly realize they were basing their assumptions on old, outdated information.

            Our nation is still going through this period of division today. Americans are living lives as proud sheep and goats. One side knows better than the other side and we will see at the end who is right! Today’s text is a good reminder not to make assumptions, beloved, and look for those threads that unite us together in an undivided demonstration of what it means to be Christ-followers in America today. Today’s startling last lesson from Jesus contains the bookend “blessed ares” for his Matthean ministry. The “blessed ares” revealed today show how we can one pull our nation back together again but they also point us to what determines the eternal consequences for our life after this life. I suppose we need to sit up straight, scoot up in our seats and listen to it, then, eh?

            The first radical thing about this judgement scene is what determines which line we fall into; it is not based on a list of “Thou shalt nots…” This is what Jesus has been trying to get across to people throughout Matthew’s gospel; it’s not about loving God with a well-lived life; on the contrary, what brings God joy is a life well-lived in its expression of love for others. Jesus is telling us that our eternal life is based first and foremost on God’s thoroughly soaking grace lavished on us through Jesus. Consequently, one’s eternal life is calculated on how well we continue the flywheel effect and share those graces with others.

            The second radical observation about our future judgement in Matthew’s text is that is doesn’t say it’s determined by our belief in Jesus. Our eternal life is not based on our mental assent that he is Lord and Savior; frankly, anyone can say that! What’s amazing is that one’s belief is not measured in mental acknowledgement and recognition of who Jesus is; on the contrary, Jesus is saying one’s faith and eternal life is based on whether we believed who he is enough to intentionally live like Jesus lived! As one scholar remarks, “Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgment is in Matthew 25. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.”[3]

Folks, you need to know that I am not saying believing in Jesus is not important; what I am saying, and what Jesus’ teaching is telling us, is that our salvation is with what we do with our belief in Jesus that matters.  I love what Dr. Lindsay Armstrong says, “Matthew lifts up the importance of what we do with our lives. Why? Because how we spend our time and whom we actively love and do not love provide a diagnostic image of our overall health.”[4] 

So, friends, if Jesus were to slap you and me into a heavenly MRI machine, what would it reveal about our spiritual health? What are the rubrics to measure it? I suggest the measurement of our spiritual health, our church’s spiritual health, is best measured with the last set of “blessed ares” in our Story today. Did you hear them?

Blessed are you when you see a stranger and give them food to eat.

Blessed are you when you see someone thirsty and give them water to drink.

Blessed are you when you look at the face of a broken human being and you welcomed them because you are showing hospitality to me.

Blessed are you when you see someone naked and without basic needs and clothe them and see to their basic needs as a human being.

Blessed are you when you cared for me while I was sick and I could give nothing in return for what you did for me.

Blessed are you when you intentionally sought me out and visited me where I was in the dark, remote places,, like a hospital ICU, a food kitchen, or in prison.

Friends, Jesus is telling us that our faith is not rocket science and is pretty simple to grasp.  When we see Jesus in the life, the face, of the person next to us, we love that person as if it were Jesus himself! Dale Bruner exclaims, “These ministries are within the reach of every single person; everyone has access to Jesus through a needy person.”[5]  Bruner reminds us that big, humongous miracles aren’t happening here; little, seemingly inconsequential ministries are. “It is precisely in these little ministries that the miracle of the Big Mystery – eternal salvation – comes.”[6] 

Church, you and I, this nation, all people everywhere, are united and tied together by the little things that hold the undeterminable weight of the key to our eternal life and salvation. Matthew reminds us that it is not about our correct beliefs or doctrines; he reminds us it is not about obeying rules and regulations; no, Matthew has Jesus reminding you and me that our eternal salvation is based upon how we love those around us in the most simple, basic, ways. He begins his gospel with “blessed ares” and he ends Jesus’ teaching with “blessed ares.”  I do believe he is trying to get us to remember something, don’t you?  The eternal question is, “Do we?”  Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder

First Presbyterian Church

401 SE 15th Avenue

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

patrickw@firstpres.cc

patrickhwrisley.com

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. 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]From a sermon from the Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens, Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, Heaven’s Audit of One’s Soul, November 23, 2008. Accessed on 2/17/09 at http://day1.org/1120-heavens_audit_of_ones_soul.

[2] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by 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 A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) by David L. Bartlett,  Barbara Brown Taylor

https://a.co/j1pRcxf.

[4] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) by David L. Bartlett,  Barbara Brown Taylor

https://a.co/6B28YdH.

[5] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 570.

[6] Ibid., 567.

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United for a Purpose – Each According to Their Ability, Matthew 25:14-30

Preacher:         Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Location:         First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale         

Date:               November 15, 2020

         The scene is being set for Jesus’ final days alive. Previously, we have seen Jesus in the Temple having rounds with the religious leaders, scholars, and politicians as they continued to pepper him with questions in order to trap him in his own words.  Well, the scene has changed.  After silencing those officials, Jesus has left the Temple and has descended down a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem and then hiked up a road through an ancient Jewish cemetery to the Mount of Olives which sits across from the Temple Mount on the east. It is most likely the same road he came down a week later riding a donkey on his entry back into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday which in Matthew’s story-time is only a week away.

         Jesus gathers this crowd of disciples and ends his teaching ministry by telling stories of what the disciples can expect in the future.  They are unsettling stories because they are stories of God’s judgement and are a call for the people to be ready to meet their God. Last week, we heard Nic speak of story of the ten bridesmaids and how some were left out of the festivities because they were not prepared with enough lamp oil. Jesus follows up that story with ours today from Matthew 25:14-30.  Listen to the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’[1]

This has never been one of my favorite stories in scripture to be honest. Every time I hear it I cringe a bit as the tone of the parable sounds so unlike the meek and mild, loving Jesus we’ve met in the Gospel thus far.  He sounds harsh and dare I say, a little mean, in today’s text. Casting that poor guy out into the darkness where’s the weeping and pain. Calling him wicked and lazy? Ouch! I always thought that it was a bit of an overreaction for the slave owner to do that to a servant who guarded his master’s money and didn’t lose any of it. What is Jesus trying to say to you and me? What’s he warning us of?

A venture capitalist gathers her three-vice presidents into the board room.  “I’m going away for a while and I want you to handle my money and investments while I’m gone. I’m going to split my portfolio into thirds according to the ability each of you have demonstrated and I want you to care for the portion you have.” One invests her money and doubles it. The second vice-president invests her money and doubles it, too!  The third vice-president thought he was being shrewd. “The boss gave me 15 year’s-worth of her wages and I’m going to make sure it’s secure.  I’ve got an old fireproof gun safe in my basement and I’ll put the money there.”

That seems like a good conservative fiscal strategy, doesn’t it? After all, it is a pandemic and the market is a little all over the place. “I will just place the cash inside my vault and not lose any of it until this political election is over.”

The boss returns and the one vice-president says, “Look, I invested the billion dollars you gave me and made a billion more!” If you were the boss, how would you feel? You’d be thrilled and say, “Awesome! Giddy-up!” The second vice-president said, “I took the half-billion invested it and made a half-billion more!”  If you were the boss, how would you feel? You’d be thrilled and say, “Awesome! Giddy-up!” The third vice-president tells the boss, “I took the quarter billion dollars you gave me and locked it up in a safe! I wanted you to see that you could trust me with your money!”  Now, if you’re the boss, how would you feel?  She looks at the vice-president who locked her money up in a fireproof vault in his basement and says, “You’re fired. Security will escort you out the building! Giddy-on-up-out-of-here!”

Why would Jesus share this Story? Why is the poor guy who buried the money cast outside? Why was that vice-president fired even though he did not lose any money? Why?

Because of squandered ability and opportunity. Verse 15 says each was given according to their ability, their power. The word Matthew uses for ability is the same word we derive our modern word for dynamite.  We each have been given charge over what is not ours because the expectation is we will use the dynamite, the power and ability that we individually have, to do something productive with what we’ve been given! Three people were given charge of a gift they did not own; two invested their gift and doubled their return.  One buried the gift; it simply sat there.

Matthean scholar Dale Bruner invites us to zoom out from this text and look at it from a 40,000 level[2]. Perhaps as we talk about the talents, about our using the aptitude that God gives each of us, we need to first remember what the Master, i.e., God has given us.  Jesus has just come from having debates with old-way thinking scholars and religious leaders. He reprimanded them because they were totally missing the point about what a life with God was meant to be about.  Jesus has been railing on them at the Temple for focusing on the nit-noids of the Law to the exclusion of fulfilling the Law of God which is what?[3] To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. And what else? To love our neighbor as ourself. Yesterday, the confirmands being examined by the Session were asked, “Why do we love others?”  They correctly responded, “Because God first loved us.”

Because God first loved us.

Hear the Story again. The Lord gave each to his three servants according to their ability.  To one, the Lord gave grace.  The Lord went away and while he was away the servant invested the grace and doubled it. The Lord responds by lavishing the servant with even more grace. To another, the Lord gave grace and when the Lord left for a time, the servant invested the grace and doubled it as well.  The Lord is a thrilled and pours out more grace upon the servant to the servant’s joy. To a third, the Lord gave grace and while he was away, the servant took that grace and did not do anything with it but kept in a secret hiding place only he knew about. When the Lord returned, the servant said, “Lord, I kept the grace to myself and did not attempt to invest it in any way.”

Can we better understand and make the connection why Jesus shares this parable?  Jesus is trying to hit home the point that as Christ-Followers, we have been given grace in order to invest it in others so God’s grace can be multiplied. We are given grace in the hopes we will blow it up and let it freely rain upon those who don’t deserve it.  We are not given and extended grace to keep that grace for ourselves and make it solely for “me.” Through this parable, Jesus is telling us that if we want to remain at the party and not be told at the Judgement to leave, then we are to be about investing God’s grace freely given to us and cultivating that same grace in those around us.

Beloved, Christ-followers are united and undivided in our call to be grace sowers, growers and harvesters. Are we?  Surveying the landscape of our nation with its citizens politically thrashing at other people’s necks, with a pandemic that requires all of us to adjust our engrained routines to new ways of living, and with the bifurcating mindset of Us against Them and I’m Right and You’re Wrong, don’t you think we should be more intentional and strategic in investing God’s grace with one another? We act like a culture who is burying the graces bestowed upon us by God and are keeping them for ourselves or “my side.”  Friends, when we do that, it not only makes God sad; our Story today tells us that it makes God angry when grace is not reinvested in order to grow it larger. If we keep it, i.e. grace, to ourselves, it simply means we are spiritual narcissists. If we keep grace to ourselves and withhold it from others, we literally become an anti-Christ.  

The Good News is that we worship and follow a God who lavishes us with grace and who only asks us to do one thing: Invest that grace in and through others in Christ’s Name. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder

First Presbyterian Church

401 SE 15th Avenue

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

patrickw@firstpres.cc

patrickhwrisley.com

© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. 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] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by 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] Dale Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. The Churchbook, Vol. 2.

[3] See Matthew 23 & 24 for these first-century theological debates.

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The Greatest Commandment, Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon:        The Greatest Commandment

Scripture:     Matthew 22:34-40

Preacher:      Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Location:      First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL            

Date:             October 25, 2020

            Have you ever been intentionally put on the spot in front of a bunch of others? Someone asks you a question to determine if you really know what you’re talking about?

            I just graduated from seminary, I answered my first call to a serve two small churches in north Georgia. In the Presbyterian system, a congregation calls a pastor and then he or she appears before the entire Presbytery of that region and is “examined” by those attending. The examination is to determine your fitness and ability to run a church. It’s an oral test.

            Seated towards the back of the church, I hear my name called out to please come forward. Nervous. Sweating. I’ve heard about these examinations before and some of the stories were not pretty. I share my statement of faith and now the 150 or so pastors and ruling elders get to grill me. A man stands up and goes to the microphone. He is a visiting pastor from Kenya and with a smile, he asks the first question. “Mr. Reesley, explain for us the relationship between Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations and the Cherokee peoples’ Trail of Tears.” He turns and sits down.  What wall did that come from? I looked at all the faces expecting an answer and tried to keep from getting an anxiety attack. It’s at this point God showed up.

            Spirit said, “Wrisley, you have just been asked a question from a man who has had and has witnessed the abuse of his rights and dignity as a black African male. He is asking you a question about a group of indigenous Americans who have had their rights, way of life, and land taken by the white man and then forcibly marched a thousand miles to Oklahoma to be resettled.”

            I spoke: The Cherokee nation, like the people of Israel and Judah, were forcibly removed from their homeland and taken as slaves, and were exiled to a foreign land. The book of Lamentations is the Jewish book we might even call, “The Trail of Tears.” I realized it wasn’t a trick question at all; if you think about it a moment, it all fits together nicely.

            Today’s text from Matthew 22:34-40 describes a similar scene. Jesus is still in the Temple and he is being grilled by the religious scholars and leaders of the day. They are doing everything they can to trip Jesus up and get him to say something scandalous in order to arrest him. So they ask him one more tough question hoping to entrap him.  Listen to the Story from Matthew 22:34-40.

Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [1]

            In the eyes of the religious leaders and scholars, Jesus’ behavior appeared to them to play loose and easy on the Torah. Jesus associated with the ne’er do wells of the day – you know, those politicians, women of ill repute, shady business leaders, Gentiles; in essence, if you listen to any of the local or national political ads at how a candidate’s opponents are doing all these horrible things, that’s what the religiously serious scholars and leaders thought about Jesus. They believed Jesus was violating the Torah, the Law, when in fact Jesus was attempting to recast the Torah, the Law, in a way that got to the essence, the heart of it.  They all looked and listened to hear what Jesus would say.  Which one of the 630 some-odd Laws in the Torah would Jesus pick?  You see, the Jews believed that all the Law was important and vital.  If you say one Law is more important than another, you risk demeaning all the Law.  They thought they were tricking Jesus; instead, they tossed him a softball.

            Jesus, being the good Jewish boy that he was, recited a prayer every Jewish person would know by heart. This prayer was the first prayer you were supposed to say upon waking and the last words you speak before sleeping.  He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 which is called the Shema. Our Jewish friends have that little scroll on the doorways of their homes we call “mezuzahs” that have this scripture and prayer placed inside them.

            The first prayer in the morning is what? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. What’s the last prayer before bed? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

            It’s beautiful isn’t it? The first and last prayer of the day, both in our living and sleeping, is to love God with everything that’s within us! We don’t love with some of our heart, some of our soul, or with some of our mind; we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our mind.  We are to love God with the full range of our emotions. We are to love God within the spiritual depths of our being which even reaches beyond our mortal time. We are to love God with every aspect of our intellect, our imagination.

            If we pause and think about it, this is a prayer that sets the bar pretty high! How many of us can say we truly live this prayer out every day and night? What are the first words you and I say in the morning getting out of bed? What are our last words as we turn out the light?  The greatest command of God’s Law is to put God first in every part of our lives.  In our jobs; we put God first. In our marriages and relationships, what are we to do? We put God first. In the way we raise our children, what are we to do? We put God first. The way we treat a server at our favorite restaurant, what are we to do? We put God first.  When we use a check or a credit card for whatever we are buying, what are we to do? We are to put God first. When we make our household budgets, what are we to do? We are to put God first and not just give God the leftover!

            And then Jesus goes adds a twist to the Shema. He couples it with a scripture from Leviticus 19 taken from a list of edicts God shares with Moses about how to treat the poor and down and out in the community. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When Jesus put these two scriptures together outlining what is now called the Great Commandment, he silenced all the critics.  They had nothing to say.

            Loving God and loving neighbor are two sides of the same coin. You can’t separate love for God with our love for those about us. It’s a Yen/Yang type of thing. We can’t have one without the other. As scholar Dale Bruner remarks, “(Our) purpose of living is the adoration of God and the cherishing of human beings…(we are to) love the God who love you and cherish the person who meets you.”[2]

            Jesus reminds us that upon these two, the entire love and expression of God hangs. Like the capstone of a stone archway, that if removed, the whole arch comes tumbling down, so are these two commandments, if they are yanked away as the capstone of the Law, the all the words of prophets and preachers come tumbling down if they are not obeyed. Jesus words are evangelical because they point us to God alone.  These words are missional in that they turn us outward to share God’s love with others. Or as Bruner reminds us, “This Double-Love command gives humans a direction to face (i.e. towards God) and a way to be (i.e. loving towards others in our midst).”[3]

            Beloved, what if we in the Christian tradition were to adhere to what our Jewish neighbors do and that is to twice a day utter the words of not only the Shema but the words pointing you and me beyond ourselves to the people we pass on the sidewalk?  What if we were to wake up every morning and the first thing out of our mouth is the prayer, “Today, I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, and mind; I will also love those around me as I love myself.”  What if we were to go to bed every night and the last words on our lips are, “As I close my eyes to sleep, I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, soul, and mind; I will also love those around me as I love myself.” 

            All together now, let’s say, “I will love the Lord our God with all my heart, all my soul and with all my mind; I will love my neighbor as myself!” Now let’s go prove it by the way we live! Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder

First Presbyterian Church

401 SE 15th Avenue

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

[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] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. A Commentary. Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 409, 417.

[3] Ibid., 412.

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