Morning is Coming if You Will Open Your Eyes

I recently was asked to preach at Emmanuel Congregational-Christian, a UCC church in Sanford, NC.

Here’s the message I gave.

I hope it blesses you!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

micah spring hat

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

These are the words of God, for the people of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Would you pray with me?

God, we believe you have more light to break forth from your holy word. We pray you open our minds and hearts so that we may see and know what light your Word has for us in these words of Scripture.  As I strive to proclaim your Word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

Today, we turn to a passage in Luke traditionally read this Sunday after Christmas.

Many of us come to church this Sunday out of a time of great joy and celebration.  We can almost still see the bright lights.  We can still smell the rich food on the table.  The sound of carols being sung and the laughter of family and friends still rings in our ears.   Yet as I turn to our Scripture I am struck by the fact not all who gather this Sunday after Christmas come full of such joy and hope.  Many come having faced fear and despair, uncertainty and doubt.  Some faced this Christmas not singing “Joy to the World” but instead like the Psalmist crying out “how long Oh Lord, hide thou away?”  For them this week held darkness and uncertainties.  It meant not knowing how their family became so divided let alone how it might be healed.  It meant not knowing how to be joyful through an illness or the loss of a loved one.  It meant not knowing where the money to pay the bills will come from this year let alone for buying gifts.   For some Christmas has been not a time of celebration but of longing, of waiting, of hoping, of praying, for a light to break forth in their darkness.

Have you gone through a time of waiting, of seeking, of longin in your own life?  Do you know someone who is?  Emmanuel Church, are you seeking God’s answer to something in your life together?  Have you had things that you have waited on, prayed for, for which you have not yet seen an answer?  I believe there is a word for all who are so seeking, waiting, and longing in the experience of Simeon and Anna we see recorded in our Gospel text.

There are three main messages I see for us in their experience:

  1. No matter how long or dark the night of waiting, don’t give up! God is as good as God’s word. Morning is coming!
  2. You have to remain open to see God’s answer. It often comes in unexpected ways.
  3. Realize: things can’t change and remain the same. Receiving God’s answer to your prayer usually involves letting go of what you have been used to so far.

The first message I see in this experience of Anna and Simeon’s is that no matter how long or dark our night, we need to not give up.   Morning is coming for us because God is as good as God’s word.

We are told here that Anna and Simeon are both in the autumn of their lives.   Anna is in her mid-80’s, and Simeon acknowledges in his prayer that the time for his death is right around the corner.   Both have devoted their lives to praying, seeking God’s face for deliverance in a dark time.  Anna and Simeon are people whose life has been one of waiting, of seeking, and of crying out to God through trying times.

Imagine how dark the days would seem to you, if you looked around Sanford and saw foreign troops holding our city down like Anna and Simeon saw holding Jerusalem down .  Imagine if every day you could see them oppressing those you care about, tearing down the things that matter to you, harassing your family and friends.  Anna and Simeon witnessed this from day one.   Yet they also have heard words of promise, first from the Scriptures read each day at the temple and ultimately through the Spirit speaking God’s promises in their own hearts.  In the face of this darkness and God’s promise, they prayed.  And they kept praying.  And they did not give up praying.  They waited. And they kept waiting.  And did not give up waiting.  And what did they see? Nothing.  The darkness seemed to only grow, the night only to lengthen.

I can’t speak for you but it would have seemed to me after a few years of seeking that perhaps God wouldn’t answer my prayers.   Every year I’d witness the darkness and oppression get worse.  Every year I’d meet no deliverer.  I would have begun to doubt, to give up, to question.   And I imagine people in my community, maybe even in my own family, would begin to say to me: why do you keep going to that temple?  Keep praying?  Don’t you know God’s not there? Don’t you know God’s not listening?

Friend, have you been there?  Have you been surrounded by doubt, fear, and questions as you sought God’s answers?

Yet, even if their faith faltered, these two did not throw in the towel.   Even if others thought their praying, seeking God’s answer, was hopeless, they continued.  And ultimately, they saw God’s answer.

Turn to someone and say “however long your waiting; however dark your night, don’t give up”.   Turn to someone else and say “Morning is coming, for God keeps God’s promises”.

The second message Simeon and Anna’s experience gives us is that we need to be open-minded when we seek God’s answer.  Often-times God’s answer to us comes in a form we would never have expected, in packaging we’d rejectif we didn’t stay open to the still-speaking God.

We see this in our Gospel text.  Simeon and Anna’ve been praying for God to send the promised Deliverer to help their people as they face foreign soldiers oppressing them.  What qualifications do you suppose they were looking for in a Deliverer?  I can tell you one thing, it wasn’t what they found as God’s answer.   It may be I’ve watched one too many action movies, but if I were in their shoes and saw foreign soldiers here in Sanford I would look for someone riding in on a white horse, guns blazing, to drive them out.  A soldier.  A general.  A freedom fighter.

Certainly not a poor innocent, helpless baby.  Definitely not a baby like Jesus – born to a mother so poor that they have to give the offering reserved in Moses’ law only for that day’s equivalent of a family on welfare.  Certainly not a child like Jesus, whose father is not even his mother’s husband.

Yet it is just through such a one that God sends the answer for which not only they have been praying but all of humanity has been praying.   It is through such a one that the Messiah comes.  God’s answer comes in unexpected packaging.

Turn to someone and say, “Stay open-minded, unless you want to miss God’s answer”. Turn to someone else and say “God’s answer may be coming in ways you won’t expect”.

Simeon praises God that he is able to see the Messiah with his own eyes before he dies; but it is not just dumb luck that allows Simeon and Anna to see Jesus for who he is, when others don’t.  The reason Anna and Simeon are able to see Jesus for who he is is that they have remained open to God acting outside the box.

You know often times we fail to do this.   So often when we say “we have prayed and God isn’t answering”, the problem is not that God is not answering us.  Too often it is that we are not looking in the right places.

For some it may be like it was for me about work a few years ago. I kept knocking down the doors of work in a particular field to little avail, not realizing God’s answer for me was not where I was focusing my attention.  God wanted me to get out of my comfort zone, go back to school, and prepare to enter a new field.

I’ve seen it with single too with folks looking for a spouse or partner with who to share their life.  When asked what sort of person they wanted to spend their life with, so often they paint such a rosy picture of who they will share their life with that no one would ever live up to their ideal image.  They never think that maybe God’s answer isn’t what they’d see on the cover of COSMO or GQ.

You see it too with churches when they say “we want to grow” but then they close their hearts and lives to people who don’t look like them, don’t talk like them, dress differently than them, are a different skin color than them, or love someone of a different gender than who they love.  They say they want God’s answer but only are open if it comes in the packaging they choose.

To see God’s answer like Simeon and Anna did to whatever struggle or question we are facing we need to be open to God giving us answers in ways that we don’t expect.  What we have always ruled out may be the very path upon we will find God’s answer if we will just open-mindedly make the first few steps.

The final message I feel Anna and Simeon’s experience is that receiving God’s answer to your prayer is going to involve some changes on your end.

Anna and Simeon’s words make it clear that not only does Jesus’ coming bring freedom but it also upsets everyone’s apple cart.  The poor will be lifted up while the rich are brought low.  A sword will pierce Mary’s heart.  Though deliverance, wisdom, and hope will come for all who are open to it through Jesus, Jesus will also turn everything upside down in ways that push people out of their comfort zone.

Turn to someone and say “Get ready to get out of your comfort zone”.  Turn to someone else and say, “for things can’t change and stay the same.”

Things can’t change and stay the same.  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  But so often when we pray for God’s answer we want to stay comfortable just as we are.  So Israel prays “deliver us from slavery” only to complain when freed from slavery.  After all, the desert journey to the promised land as free people is not at all like the life they knew in Egypt.  When things changed, they couldn’t stay the same.

So a couple prays “let’s have a baby” yet may not think right away about the late nights, the setting aside of their social schedule, the way their whole life changes in ways any of you who have been or are parents know it does.  For things to change, they couldn’t stay the same.

More times than you would expect as a pastor I’ve had folks come up to me and say “preacher, pray for me.  I’m addicted to drugs” or “alcohol,” only to have the following happen.  We’d prayer together.  After we prayed, I’ve say “listen there is a 12 step meeting here at this time; and a treatment center here on this street” only to hear “no – if I go there, people will see me and think I’m an addict.  I’ll just trust Jesus to heal”.  I’ve always had to say – how do you expect Jesus to help you find freedom from the bondage of addiction if you stay just as you are?  You have to get out of your comfort zone.  For things to change in their life, they can’t stay the same.

So churches say “we want to impact our community in a big way” but think that can mean keeping with how they’ve always done church, even though the community around them has changed greatly.  You and I both know that won’t work.  Things can’t change and stay the same.

Whatever you are praying for God’s answer for, you need to realize you have a part to play.  Elsewhere Paul tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works within us already to will and work to God’s good pleasure.   We cannot just sit and wait for God’s answer.

I want to challenge you.  Don’t give up seeking God even though the waiting seems long.  Don’t shut yourself off to the many different ways God may be speaking and acting lest you lose out on God’s answer.  And let go your need to be comfortable and stay as you are, opening yourself instead to be changed by the God who makes all things new.

Would you pray with me?

God help us to hold on to your promises, even when the night is dark and the wait is long.

Christ help us to be open to your voice and guiding hand even when your answer is unexpected and your way winding and uncertain.

Holy Spirit help us to be open when like a Master Potter you stretch us beyond what is comfortable into new shapes reflective of Christ’s image that allow us to be vessels of love.

Triune God, help us to be your hands of mercy and voice of love to each other and this hurting world in every dark night we face.

Amen.

Benediction:

Be confident of this, that our God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Amen.

Week in the Word: When God Brings the Keg

I’ve been taking a break from sharing my regular series of reflections on my daily Scripture reading and sharing a series on the life of Jesus here.  This is from a sermon I gave at Diversity in Faith, Fayetteville, NC.  I hope it opens you up to the beauty and wonder of the life God has invited you to share in.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Your progressive redneck preacher at the wedding party he had when he married  his California girl, 11 years ago.

Your progressive redneck preacher at the wedding party he had when he married his California girl, 11 years ago.

Our Gospel reading comes from John 2

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, wedding at cana 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

I want to begin by sharing a short video:

I can relate to this video because of my experience in college. I was a pretty strict religious guy in college… I did the whole “True Love Waits” thing, and stuck to it. And in part because of trying to stick the straight-laced faith I grew up with, and in part because of having a family member who was not just an alcoholic but at times an angry drunk when he drank, I would not really touch the stuff.

So I was that guy in the video, standing around puzzled while others partied.

Because of this, like a lot of religious folks, I found this whole story about Jesus a little embarrassing. Like many I had grown up with this picture of faith as a life of discipline, constantly working hard to do the right thing. Which usually meant sacrificing pleasure, choosing the narrow road few went by, however painful. Sacrifice. After all, didn’t Jesus call me to take up the cross.

serious kegBut here we see Jesus’ first miracle, which you would think would be the one to sort of picture what his ministry and his work was all about. And what does Jesus do? Jesus goes to a party. And, as important as I still think a designated driver is, Jesus does not seem to go as one. This is why later in the Gospels when Jesus is criticized, it is for drinking and partying too hardy … unlike his cousin John the baptizer who never touched the stuff & his criticized for being too rigid. No, Jesus was known to have a drink. Here Jesus went one better: Jesus not only had a drink at the party, brought the keg. Jesus’ first miracle is bringing the keg of wine to the party. Not only is it bringing a keg, but turning the barrels of holy water, which are about the size of a beer keg, into strong wine, the kind you bring out at the beginning of the party when folks are still sober or on a light buzz, not the cheap stuff you bring out later.

In fact Jesus doesn’t bring one keg … he brings six. Six kegs of strong wine to a group of people who’ve already drunk enough.

What can we make of this? What does it teach us about our lives and our calling?

The first thing this shows me is that Jesus did not come to call us to sacrifice.

In fact Jesus tells us this in the Gospels.

Later in John, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus repeatedly says things like “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7).

I don’t know about you, but for years the opposite message is what I heard: that if you want to follow God, it means choosing suffering, choosing sacrifice. It means giving up the celebration, giving up the joy, giving up the career you love, the life your family wants. I’ve seen people sacrifice caring for themselves, for their families, in the name of this sacrifice, all because they believe that is what God asks of them.

And I don’t know about you, but I have seen the innocent condemned based on this belief that Christian life is all about sacrifice.

I remember having a man, heart-stricken, come to me as I served in a church in Los Angeles, saying “Here’s the thing, I love God, I love this church, but I also know I’m gay”. The message he had been given was that in order to please God, he had to sacrifice who he was, sacrifice his sexual orientation, be something he is not, and live without love and alone. That Jesus, not the thief, was the one who had come into life to steal, kill, and destroy who he was.

I remember seeing a young lady told she had no faith and that is why she was not healed – that her disability was a sign she was not a believer. That preacher and that church lived out sacrifice, not mercy. They taught Jesus came to steal, kill, and destroy who she was.

I am heart-broken to recall a young person struggling, feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, having a church respond that “we don’t want someone like that here”, because they saw sacrifice, not mercy ruling the day.

I think that Jesus’ miracle shows us that God’s focus is not sacrifice. God’s call is not for us to deny who we are in order to serve God. Instead as it says in Ephesians 2, verse 10, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do “

 

Turn to someone and say “You aren’t junk; no, you are God’s handiwork”

Turn to someone else and say “God doesn’t call you to deny who you are, because you were created in Christ Jesus”.

In Jesus’ first miracle, Jesus blesses the very things in our lives so often we are told to sacrifice in the name of religion.wedding at cana Jesus blesses celebration, pictured by the wine and the party. Jesus shows us being filled with God’s presence ought to cause you to enjoy life, to celebrate – drawing you closer to others, helping you see the joy in each moment. For some people, this might not mean lifting wine, because for them that bottle might very well be the very thing that causes them to become so broken they cannot be present in the moment, truly enjoying others, truly embracing life. I know that family member whose drinking made me decide to turn away from the bottle at one point in my life later decided that, for himself, he had to give up the bottle not to sacrifice a good, full life but in order to find it. Now after working through some of my experiences stemming from that relative’s drinking and from my own experience of legalistic religion I can have a drink from time to time in celebration. What is important is not the bottle, but the fact that Jesus is showing us that being able to drink deep of the joy and blessings in life, and doing so with others, is part and parcel of the life he brings. Our faith ought to awaken us to the depths of joy in our life. This is a part of what we have been talking about by saying that God becoming flesh and blood in Jesus not only is a promise of salvation, but a picture of what it makes possible: that in your life, however unique or seemingly ordinary, God is already breaking forth every day in big and little ways if you have eyes to see. So in you, in your every day life, God can also become flesh and blood so that through you others can find more fully the healing, the hope, and most of the joy and celebration in their own lives every day.

Also, though we often fail to notice it in this passage, Jesus is celebrating sex through this miracle. After all, what follows the wedding party but the wedding night? For many of us, we have learned from the church the opposite message – to be ashamed of our sexuality. How many gay, bisexual, or transgendered folks have heard from the church over the years that their sexuality is a curse, their love an abomination, and their relationship a pathway to hell? Even many straight couples I’ve worked withas a pastor over the years have told me stories about how mixed messages in the church calling for them to sacrifice led them to feel ashamed of their sexuality, to struggle to really celebrate intimacy with their spouse.

But in celebrating this miracle at a wedding, Jesus is blessing sex as a beautiful gift. Jesus is showing sexuality to be a beautiful gift with the power to draw people together in ways that are healing and life-giving. I thank God that this miracle is here, because we know so little about Jesus’ own sexuality.

Turn to someone and say, Who you love is a gift. Love can never be an abomination.

In her book Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, Ann Rice imagines this scene as being the marriage of a young lady that Jesus had been smitten with to someone else, and coming after Jesus, having confronted his own sexuality, chooses to forsake marriage for a life of singleness, because he knows that, headed to the cross, he cannot be there for a wife or children. This is the traditional understanding of how Jesus expresses his sexuality: by choosing a life of singleness. Yet some scholars point toward some writings in the early church that suggest Jesus might have had a wife, as other rabbis did, to suggest Jesus was married. Still others point to the text at the end of John where Jesus entrusts his mother into the hands of the beloved disciple, traditionally the apostle John, as a sign that Jesus was bisexual or gay and had a loving partnership with another man.

The Bible is not very clear on whether Jesus was single, was straight and married, or gay or bisexual and in a committed same-sex relationship. I think the reason why is that any of these paths can be paths of holiness, where we allow God to become flesh and blood in our lives. By not telling us clearly which path Jesus is on the Bible makes room for us to imagine each of these paths as paths in which God can be made flesh in our world. Being single can be a way we experience our sexuality, and do so in a way that is healing and life-giving if we are ones called, whether for a time or for life, to singleness. Straight couples can and do reflect the life and love of Christ when they let Christ-like love rule their relationships. And I have seen so, so many same-gender couples whose sexuality is turned into a portrait of the love of Christ in how they allow their sexuality to help them find true, deep meaningful love through which they build a life together that reflects the life of Christ.

love is loveThis means that following Christ does not mean denying who you are in terms of your sexuality. Instead it means accepting it, whatever it is, and asking not how can I get rid of this but instead how can I be true to this in a way that reflects the love of Christ? There are a few people who, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, will determine the best way for them to be true to who they are in Christ is to be single, whether for the moment or long-term. Most others will find Christ showing them how their sexuality can be a gift which binds them together with others, in relationships whether same-gender or opposite-gender, that call out the best of who they are and help them learn how to love another selflessly as Christ loves us and gave his life for us.

Turn to someone and say Love can never be an abomination, because the Bible says against love there is no law.

 

In closing, I want to ask you to listen to the words of a Bon Jovi song, which illustrate the central truth of this passage to us.