Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol

The Holy Places of Advent: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol
Isaiah 7: 10-16; Luke 2: 25-33 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 18, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 'Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.'

But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.

Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
- Isaiah 7: 10-16

Now 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. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided 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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
- Luke 2: 25-33

The watch word for this fourth Sunday of Advent is LOVE. Today we draw ever closer to God’s promise that inaugurates God’s eternal kingdom. It was a promise of steadfast love in that the young woman (virgin) is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, meaning God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1: 31-33). Our texts today reveal Ahaz and Simeon gave two different responses to God’s promise. Their responses bear weight into our lives today.

Ahaz was Judah’s king and was in the line of David. He was to serve God and God’s people with faith and integrity. Isaiah’s first encounter with Ahaz was to reassure him. The king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) and the king of Aram conspired to remove Ahaz and end the Davidic dynasty; a threat to God's promise. Israel and Aram did not want any chance for Judah (Southern Kingdom) to prevail against them. This plan gripped Ahaz and the people with great fear (Isaiah 7:1-2).

Isaiah tried to guide Ahaz in trusting God, saying “If you do not stand firm in faith then you shall not stand at all” (Isaiah 7:9). God is the only one who can peel back the layers of our hearts to reveal what blocks the passages of faith to flow towards obedience to God. Fear and pride blocked Ahaz’s heart. And God saw the dire risk and affects this would pose to Ahaz’s ability to serve God and the people.

So God spoke to Ahaz. God wanted Ahaz to look to God for help. Ahaz would need it to navigate through this real threat to his life and the goodwill of the people. The Lord said, “Ask for a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as the heavens” (Isaiah 7:11).

Ask for God’s pledge or promise of what God will do. Ask for it to reach either deep into the fears that risk cutting you off, or ask for it to reach as high as the greatest hope and glory God may bring. But Ahaz refused. He hid behind pious rhetoric and empty words.

Simeon was a prophet and priest in the temple long after Isaiah’s words were proclaimed. But Simeon had the privilege of opening Isaiah’s scroll. Simeon heard God’s Spirit whisper words of reassurance that Simeon would indeed see this Messiah before he died (Luke 2: 26). He spent his entire life looking high and low for the Messiah – this pledge of God’s steadfast love – to come and console and ultimately deliver God’s people.

Simeon was willing to allow the promise of the Messiah to inform his life. And God honored Simeon’s faithfulness. Mary and Joseph walked into the temple and Simeon held this sweet little Jesus boy (8 days old). As Simeon cradled baby Jesus in his arms, he knew this was the promised One. What a gift to hold the culmination of God’s promise in your own arms!

But God did something amazing in Ahaz’s life as well. Even as Ahaz refused to ask for a sign of God’s steadfast love to help him and his people, God did not turn away from Ahaz. God gave the sign of his divine promise anyway. Ahaz heard the promise that claimed God’s people, that guided Simeon’s life and still illumines our lives today.

But even though Ahaz heard the promise, he did not see his need for God’s help. He missed the blessing. It is the most precious gift that you and I could ever receive and yet we are at risk of missing it too.

A few weeks ago twenty four year old Isaac McCord was helping in the clean-up efforts from the wildfires in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. He and a coworker were raking up debris at one of the affected resorts. As Isaac was raking underneath a park bench, his eye caught a glimpse of a piece of paper in a puddle of water. He got down on the ground and noticed it was actually a page of the Bible. Curious to see what it said, he lifted the vulnerable page from the water. It was torn and the edges were singed black.

Isaac and his coworker looked at the verses that were legible. It said, “O Lord, to thee will I cry: For the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field," (Joel 1:19). The verse completely reflected the tragedy that claimed the town Isaac loved so much.

Isaac never considered himself a deeply religious person. He had not gone to church every Sunday nor had he read much of the Bible. But finding this Bible page did something within Isaac. It had moved him to tears. Isaac now has a desire to reflect upon the role of faith in his life. What a sign of God’s presence in the midst of turmoil. Isaac’s story has given many hope as this sign reveals God is with us, even in our darkest hour.

God’s gift is nothing less than extraordinary. God’s holy covenant love for humanity and creation is revealed in ordinary and even painful circumstances. In a time when fear, uncertainty, pride, injustice, and tragedy cast long shadows of dismay, the light of God’s hope shines the way forward. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together (Isaiah 40:5).

God’s gift of divine love is a miracle because we have the opportunity to experience it in unexpected places. Even as unexpected as finding baby Jesus in a manger. It was a feeding trough that cradled the King.

Listen to these words by Ann Weems:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
God’s mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning.

The Lord gave the peoples of the earth a garden,
And the people said, “That’s very nice, God, but that’s not enough.
We’d like a little knowledge, please.”

The Lord gave them knowledge,
And the people said, “Now that we have knowledge, we’d like things.”
The Lord God gave the people things,
But they always said, “That’s not quite enough.”

So the Lord God gave them gifts unequaled:
The sun
Lightning and thunder
Rain and flowers
Animals and birds and fish
Trees and stars and the moon.
God gave them the rainbow.

God parted the Red Sea and gave them manna.
God gave them prophets
And children and each other,
But still the people said, “That’s not quite enough.”

God loved the people,
And out of ultimate merciful goodness
God gave them the Gift of Gifts,
A Christmas present never to be forgotten.
God gave them love
In the form of God’s Son,
Even Jesus Christ.

There are some that do not open their eyes or their ears
Or their hearts
And they still say, that’s not quite enough.
They wander through the stores looking for Christmas.

But others open their whole being to the Lord,
Bending their knees to praise God,
Carrying Christmas with them every day.
For these the whole world is a gift!

As we journey to the manger of Christmas Eve, may we remember our need for a Savior by asking God once again to reveal his pledge of steadfast love to us in new ways. It reaches as far down to the Sheols of our worst fears and deepest pain to bring comfort. It stretches as high as the glories of heaven to proclaim that God’s majesty is redeeming our stories. God pledges to be with us through it all!

And as you go - look for the promise of God’s love in the unexpected places, for you never know where the Messiah will cry out.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series title "The Holy Places of Advent: A Promise between Heaven and Sheol" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series", (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 7, "Advent 4: Somewhere between Heaven and Hell."

Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980 ), p. 70.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon: A Highway to God

"The Holy Places of Advent: A Highway to God"
Isaiah 35: 1-10; James 5: 7-10 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 11, 2015
Third Sunday of Advent

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.

They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
- Isaiah 35: 1-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. - James 5: 7-10

This season of Advent we have been singing the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” each Sunday. The first stanza is so very poignant to Isaiah’s poetic words we hear today:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel, Shall come to you, O Israel.

As we sing these words we remember God’s people were held captive by Assyria and they were mourning in exile. Judah had a deep longing to return home to Mount Zion where the capital city of Jerusalem was. Exile caused the people to walk through another wilderness experience like their ancestors who were exiled in Egypt.

God allowed Assyria to capture Judah because the people of God had forgotten God’s ways. As a result the people of Judah were physically, emotionally, and spiritually parched like a desert. Life felt empty and barren for miles and miles. If you have traveled to a desert, then you know this arid climate goes for long stretches of time without water.

And suddenly Isaiah’s words reveal God’s timing will provide what the people need when they need it the most. Isaiah’s words come as a divine interruption. Isaiah prophesies of the day when the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad. The desert shall rejoice and blossom because God will bring life giving water in abundance (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6). Not only would the desert’s thirst be quenched, but also the weakness and fragileness of humanity would be strengthened and renewed (Isaiah 35:3-6). Out of the wilderness God would fashion a highway to lead the ransomed people of God home (Isaiah 35:8, 10).

Can you imagine the sense of renewed hope the people heard in this good news? It not only strengthened the people’s hearts but it renewed their confidence in God. A blooming desert is quite a visual image to connote the ways God’s grace provides for our souls to flourish.

This text from Isaiah always reminds me of a dear friend and former mentor, The Rev. Dr. Richard Cromie.

Dr. C., as I affectionately called him, was a retired Presbyterian pastor with over 40 years of ordained ministry. When my daughters were in preschool I had the privilege of working part-time with him as an Administrative Assistant for his faith-based non-profit ministry called Desert Ministries. Dr. C. and many other pastoral contributors wrote pastoral care literature for individuals enduring the desert times of life. While Dr. C. entered the Church Triumphant three years ago, his story of founding Desert Ministries remains with me.

Dr. C. was on a trip in Carefree, Arizona. He was with a group of friends playing golf. And the golf course was situated in the Sonoran desert. As the group reached the eighth tee it began to rain. Now this was not a drizzle but a heavy downpour. They waited more than an hour to pick up the clubs when they witnessed the most amazing sight before their eyes. The desert burst into bloom.

“Seeds that had been waiting beneath the surface, waiting for water, began to sprout and blossom. It was a miracle. Within minutes the flowers were there. That is what Isaiah must have seen when he wrote our little verse, twenty-eight hundred years ago.”

Dr. C. went on to say, “In the matters of the spirit, in friendship, love and relationships and healing, the same miracle can return again and again and again. From the dry, worrisome, worn-out little deserts of our lives, the miracle will come when the living water of our Lord comes down. Believe it. The desert shall rejoice and blossom…when the living waters come.”[1]

Consider where you are standing along the path of faith in this particular season of your life. Close your eyes just for a moment and look back through the days, months, and years. Allow God’s Spirit to give you the courage to revisit those little deserts you have experienced or may be experiencing today. Places of spiritual dryness; stretches of wilderness where you felt lost or lonely; seasons when weak hands and feeble knees disoriented life.

Now consider the moment your spirit tasted God’s abundant life-giving water in that time. Or maybe you’re waiting patiently for it today. For you and I all have a story where we have glimpsed the miracle of our little deserts blooming with new life. God’s grace interrupts our lives with hope filled words, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God! He will come and save!” (Isaiah 35:4).

Today, in our modern times, we do not know why God allows us to experience the wilderness and desert places of life. They do point to the brokenness of life which God is working to redeem. Maybe God uses the wilderness and desert to cause us to lean into a deeper trust of God.

For out of our desert experiences God not only provides sustenance, but God also provides a path for our feet and faith to follow. “In God, wilderness becomes not a journey of struggle but of hope, and the Advent season rekindles this hope for a way through the wilderness anew each year .”[2]

The season of Advent actually becomes a highway to God. It is a time to walk this path more slowly even through the wilderness. It is a time to walk with intentional focus lest we miss the landscape of God’s grace being revealed before us. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist reassured God’s people to trust this highway:

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley – every low place covered with darkness and shadows– shall be lifted up [into the light].
Every mountain and hill – those obstacles of life – will be made low.
The uneven ground – the spaces which cause us to lose our footing – shall become level.
The rough spaces – the areas of life which cause us pain – shall be made smooth.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together’” (Isaiah 40: 3-5; Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).

This highway to God is leading us to the fulfillment of God’s promises. And that fulfillment is found in Bethlehem as we remember the birth of the coming Christ Child. With each step we take on this Advent journey the joy of the Lord is being rekindled within us.

We are singing, O come, O come Emmanuel and redeem all that holds us captive. O Come, O come Emmanuel and return to us the joy of your salvation. O Come, O come Emmanuel and turn our mourning into dancing for we have something to rejoice about!

As we strive to focus our eyes a little further down the highway of God, across the crest of the Advent’s hill towards Christmas, we can trust Isaiah’s words of hope-filled joy:

“Be strong and do not fear! Here comes your God! He will come and save again, and again, and again!” That is good news to be joyful about.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1]Richard M. Cromie, “Christ Will See You Through” (Palm Beach: Desert Ministries, Inc., 1999), p. 31.

[2]Bruce Birch (Exegetical Perspective), “Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 53.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon: A Tangible Hope

"The Holy Places of Advent: A Tangible Hope"
Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 4, 2015
Second Sunday of Advent

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
- Isaiah 11: 1-10

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Gospel for Jews and Gentiles Alike

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
and again,
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;

and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Romans 15: 4-13

Encouragement is found in the most unexpected places.

A few weeks ago my friend Diane was about to step into her business when a young African American woman walked up to her. The woman asked how to get to the Work Force Office on Jordan Lane. Diane asked the woman if she had a car since her destination was miles away. The woman had used the light rail and she was afraid she would miss an important appointment. Listening to the woman’s anxious voice, Diane offered to take the woman where she needed to go.

As soon as the seat belts clicked the two women began to talk. Diane was struck with how much they had in common: they both had a love for babies, they had both been single mothers struggling to support themselves and their children, and they both had family connections to Jamaica.

And then the woman opened up about the situation she was striving to overcome. The woman’s husband had been incarcerated for domestic violence. The abuse she incurred had been so oppressive the woman nearly lost their baby, a little girl who is now fourteen months old. The woman was on her way to the Work Force Office to apply for a job that her pastor was helping her to get. As she talked about her faith in God, Diane was inspired by the hope resounding in this young woman’s voice.

Right before the woman got out of the car she looked at Diane and said, “When I take the light rail to downtown, I usually exit out the tunnel the other way, but God sent me a different way today.”

Out of a dead end situation God provided a tangible hope to both of these women.

As Isaiah prophesied to God’s people, they were at a great loss. Assyria had invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah, turning against King Ahaz’s corrupt deal to form an alliance. As a result God’s people had no one to turn to in hopes of leading them out of this oppression.

Authoritative leaders could not be trusted. The Syro-Ephraimite war devastated the people. Widows, orphans, and the poor were neglected. Everything seemed like a dead end. Where or who would the people of God turn to for encouragement and the hope of peace?

Isaiah’s words convey a resurrection promise from an unexpected place. From this dead end situation a tangible hope will rise up with the promise of new life from the stump of Jesse. What was left of the Davidic kingdom looked like a lifeless stump. But God wanted the people to look back into her roots for the divine encouragement promised in David’s lineage.

Not a lot is written about Jesse, the father of King David. But Jesse was a humble man. He was a farmer and a sheep herder. He was from Bethlehem and a descendent from the tribe of Judah (1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Chronicles 2:12). He was the grandson of Ruth and Boaz and within the promised lineage of God’s eternal kingdom (Ruth 4:12, 17-22). And from Jesse’s humble roots God’s promise is revealed as a divine gift.

This gift is none other than the Messiah whom we know as Jesus Christ. The Messiah is a tangible hope like no other. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him for he is anointed with divine credentials to redirect the course of all humanity and creation. The Messiah’s reign is an honorable one with divine strategy and discernment, sound advice and the valor of a warrior, as well displaying God’s truth and reverence.

The Messiah is who the people of God needed then and still need today for he does not make decisions based on the appearance of individuals, situations, or selfish desires. The Messiah lifts up the poor, the lowly, and the meek with right relationships and equity.

The greatest gift of the Messiah’s reign is peace where fear and violence are redirected by the hope of steadfast relationships. The predators and the prey within creation will lie down together in harmony. Humanity is encouraged by a keener awareness of God’s grace and hospitality to be one another’s keeper. This gift of peace not only rewrites the livelihood of the oppressed into a just and hope-filled reality. This gift of peace is a divine invitation for all creation and humanity to participate in revealing.

When you and I think of peace we often consider hardships and struggles will be resolved with an absence of conflict. But if we dig into the language of the Scriptures that is not how peace is described.

The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. It means God’s actions are bringing about wholeness, completeness, and welfare from brokenness and oppression. Shalom is also a hope-filled word in which an individual bestows God’s best upon another as we wait for all things to be reconciled in God’s timing .The Greek from the Romans’ text describes peace as tranquilly awaiting the return of Christ for all things to be transformed.

Despite all the hard things we face in the world today, the season of Advent reveals that God is sending us a different way. We are not to get caught up in the tunnels that lead to dead ends and hopelessness. Rather we are to walk in the ways of the Messiahs’ Kingdom for Christ is among us as a tangible hope to lead us in the ways of peace. Therefore Christ is calling us to be a tangible hope to others to pray and work together for God’s shalom.

This past week we have heard so many people and places crying out for peace. When the cries are coming from places close to home we cannot help but listen to their stories and look for hope rising.

The latest addition to the south east forest fires has been in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It has been amazing to hear of fire departments coming from as far as Washington State to restore peace from a fiery chaos. I have been touched by the local stories of ordinary people doing their part as well.

Ric Morgan is a longtime resident of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. As the wildfires Monday night quickly spread to his neck of the woods, Morgan saw rivers of fire. His home was on Ski Mountain and it was blazing red. Morgan waited for two hours without luck for authorities to rescue him. Morgan escaped the wildfire with the help of a neighbor who spotted him waving a flashlight in his window as flames raced down Ski Mountain toward his apartment.

Morgan, 66, has two prosthetic legs and uses a motorized wheelchair. He also holds doctorates in theology and world religion and has served as a chaplain. This past week he has been living in the Red Cross shelter with hundreds of others who are displaced from the wildfires. And Morgan has been allowing his faith to guide him by offering a kind ear for anyone at the shelter who needs to talk.

“There has to be hope,” Morgan said. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.[1]

Morgan’s comment sounds a lot like God’s shalom, doesn’t it? That is what working for peace looks like.

It is working with God as a tangible hope to put the pieces back together so that God’s Kingdom will transform all things. We may not know how to be agents of peace to end world hunger, to end the wars that seize innocent women and children in the world, or to bring complete healing to tragedies close to home. But it does not excuse us from this holy work either.

Advent reframes the places of hopelessness into holy places where the light of Christ illumines the broken fragments of humanity and creation with the hope of God’s wholeness and welfare for all.

We all long for God’s peace through our prayers. And as humanity and creation groan, hope will rise. For the steadfastness and encouragement of our Messiah lead you and me to be a tangible hope to others in seemingly small ways.

Giving a ride to that woman in need.
Being that listening ear when another hurts.
Releasing a grudge to bring repairs to a relationship.
Preparing hygiene kits for the homeless.

Each small act of love and encouragement works to mend the bonds of humanity and creation a little more until Jesus Christ brings God’s shalom to completion. May it be so for each of us as we wait for the Messiah again this Advent season.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series title "The Holy Places of Advent: A Tangible Hope" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series"(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 5-6.

[1] Hayes Hickman, “Evacuee Recalls Rivers of Fire,” Knoxville News Sentinel, November 30, 2016.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sermon: A Holy Invitation

The Holy Places of Advent: A Holy Invitation
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2015
First Sunday of Advent

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
- Isaiah 2: 1-5

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. - Romans 13: 11-14

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was America’s poet in the nineteenth century. He had the gift of crafting words to reveal what was held in the heart of the nation and within his own. It was in 1861 that Abraham Lincoln had served as President for one year and the Civil War began. As the war weighed upon the country, Longfellow felt the weight of it all compounded with personal hardships.

As months turned into years, Longfellow wondered if Christmas still changed the world. On December 25, 1863 Longfellow felt his faith reframing his emotions with incredible hope. He put his pen to paper and wrote the famous poem which was later put to music, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day.
Their old familiar carols play.
And wild and sweet their words repeat
Of peace on earth good-will to men.

As the words flowed he came to the sixth stanza and wrestled with God’s promise of peace in the face of the Battle of Gettysburg. But his honest faith moved him to press on through the darkness:

And in despair I bowed my head.
There is no peace on earth I said.
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth good-will to men.

And then like a choir singing, Longfellow heard the most profound message speak into his heart. He became acutely aware of God’s eternal promise breaking in as he wrote the last stanza:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
"God is not dead; nor does he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"[1]

It is a hope that had sounded nearly impossible to Longfellow in the nineteenth century. It is also a hope that sounded nearly impossible to those hearing Isaiah’s prophet words.

In Isaiah’s time God’s people were torn into the Northern state of Israel and the Southern state of Judah. God heard the longing of humanity to be rescued from dark and difficult times. Corruption pulsed among the powerful. Oppression seized the most vulnerable. As the fibers of the states, communities and families unraveled between the tensions of judgment and grace, despair seemed to have the last word for many years.

But Isaiah spoke into the darkness with a light of hope. God could be trusted to establish the Lord’s house on the highest of the mountains. God’s dwelling would be recognized as a place where peoples of every nation will gather to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s faithfulness. God’s eternal promise will embrace humanity in such a way that swords and spears would be turned into instruments to cultivate the peace which only God provides.

O, to see a world where unity is the anthem of the people and the seeds of hope grow in a bountiful harvest to satisfy every need is quite an image, is it not? And as lofty as this dream sounds, it is God’s vision for all humanity and creation.

Isaiah’s words are a beginning point for you and me to navigate through the Advent journey this year. God invites us to look upwards to see where God’s promises are breaking into our lives. When we hear the word ‘Advent’ we know what time it is, for we are waiting for God’s actions to be revealed in the Christ Child once again.

Our human reality, no matter how bleak or broken it may seem, is cradled in the womb of God’s deliverance. Salvation is drawing near to us in this season of waiting. Faith is pregnant with hope. And we are to actively wait for God’s grace to be born again with great expectation.

Jesus Christ is the reason for the season but as we prepare for Christmas we easily forget to call on God’s name. This season brings excitement and joy to the ears and eyes of young ones, but there is often a sense of stress and tension for us adults. We carry burdens of loss and strained relationships. Finances get tighter. Divisions weigh us down. The forecast for world peace looks bleak. And some of us fight against the temptation of just being cynical about it all.

We try to put aside the unresolved parts of our lives in order to pursue the ideal story we wish we could live. It is easier to get caught up in the story we imagine for ourselves than the story that is trying to break in and change our lives. We confess our human need is to fill the empty despair residing in our hearts and minds. But our human nature reaches towards the comforts of the culture instead of the hope of God’s coming kingdom.

And yet God invites us to mark this time of Christmas preparation differently this year. We are called to see glimmers of hope unfolding among us today. “The future belongs to God and the first step towards that future belongs to those who have glimpsed God’s light and are willing to trust that enough light lies ahead.”[2]

Our Lord and Savior is the source of this light. Jesus Christ himself says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). The light of the promised Christ Child shines along Advent’s path to lead the way ahead for us.

Notice that as a candle shines into the darkness its flame wildly reaches out in many directions to illumine all that surrounds it. In the same way, God’s promise of hope longs to shine into every corner of our darkness and into every situation of impossibility. It is a promise that is already here but not yet completely fulfilled.

As the light of Christ shines, it reveals the next steps we are to take to learn from God’s ways and to walk in the paths of God’s faithfulness. With each step we take on this Advent journey, we encounter holy places where hope breaks into the broken spaces of life. We are to make room in our hearts and minds to pause each day to take in the landscape of God’s steadfast love.

And maybe – just maybe in these still small moments - we will experience something amazing. Hope will break in like a choir singing, for in our hearts we will hear a profound message that reframes life’s impossibilities. Like bells ringing more loud and deep, we are reminded that God is present with us. God’s faithful presence is still at work to bring about the hope of redemption for you and I are still in need of a Savior. His reign upon God’s mountain will make the wrong fail, and the righteous prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men. Even if this hope is a glimmer of light, it is nothing short of God’s grace.

Does Christmas still change the world? Over the course of these next four weeks we have the opportunity to ponder this question. As we walk along the holy places of Advent we are listening and watching for God’s promises of hope, peace, joy, and love to reframe our lives.

May we lift up our countenances towards God’s dwelling place. Let us walk in the light of the Lord for we know what time it is!

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Advent Thematic Series "The Holy Places of Advent: A Holy Invitation" adapted from "A Preacher's Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series"(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 3-5.

[1] The Christian Post, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Greg Laurie Dec 21, 2013.
[2] Stacey Simpson Duke, “Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010). p. 6.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sermon: Who Is Jesus?

Who Is Jesus?
Luke 23: 33-43 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2015
Christ the King Sunday

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
- Luke 23: 33-43

If Jesus walked among us today I wonder if we would recognize him? Rev. Jonathan Smith accepted a call to serve as Senior Pastor of a large urban church in Atlanta. The first Sunday he was to lead worship, Smith disguised himself as a homeless man. His beard and hair were unkept; his clothes were dirty; he had not bathed for days.

Smith wandered off the street into the church before worship started. As hundreds of people began to gather, only a few church members spoke to him. When Smith walked into the sanctuary and sat down the ushers asked for him to sit towards the back of the church. Some people avoided making eye contact with him. Some scoffed under their breaths. The liturgist opened worship and after the opening hymns were sung, hearts were being prepared to receive the Word.

And then an elder stood before the congregation to introduce the new pastor. While the elder was in on this, the congregation was not. Smith stood up and walked up to the front of the church to look upon his flock. The congregation was shocked. Not in a million years would these people have expected their shepherd to look as a homeless man, even if it was just a disguise.

For most of us, it is shocking to read Luke’s story of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior – as a marginalized man hanging on a cross just like the two criminals who were to be put to death with him. Luke remembers the leaders scoffed at him. The soldiers mocked him. One of the criminals derided him. No one would ever expected a righteous king to hang like a criminal. It was even offensive to imagine the Son of God publicly humiliated as an outcast. But the people who stood by watching, they were seeing the meaning of all this unfold.

Over the centuries people have asked why did Jesus die on the cross; what is the meaning? Since the middle ages three different theories surfaced to answer the question. However none of them are truly sufficient alone to explain the mystery of the cross.

The first theory is that Christ died on the cross as a Victor. God worked through Jesus’s obedient love to conquer the powers of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:54; Colossians 2:15). While Scripture tells us we have victory through Jesus Christ, this theory is limited. Although the battle is won we continue to struggle with the human condition of sin. We long to fully experience the freedom from sin which we will fully know in God’s eternal presence.

The second theory is that Christ died as a ransom to pay a debt in which humanity cannot repay (Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:6). Humanity has incurred the debt because of sin. Although the debt is paid to satisfy God’s honor, the redeeming love of God is overpowered by image of a wrathful God. For many individuals this is problematic because the emphasis on God’s wrath makes God seem like a tyrant and unrelational.

The third theory is that Christ’s sacrificial love empowers moral influence (Luke 7:47). God reconciles the world through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. And Christ’s example moves us to follow in Christ’s faithful obedience but this theory is limited too. While we strive to have the same mind of Christ, taking our eyes off the cross diminishes the seriousness of sin.

You and I are children of the Enlightenment era and we search for answers with logic and reason. But that was not Luke’s context. Nor did Luke go into great detail of the suffering Christ endured on the cross. The greatest meaning of Luke’s story is revealing who is Jesus from the very beginning of the Gospel to the very end. Knowing the One we confess as Savior is primary over the way we explain Jesus’ saving death.

For Luke, Jesus ushers in an upside down kingdom. When the Son of the Most High came into the world, he was to be recognized by his humble poverty (Luke 2:7). God worked through him to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and lift up the lowly (Luke 1: 50-53). This King did not search out the righteous ones but came kept company with the sinners and outcasts to the very end of his life in order to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus did not seek out his own interests to save himself because he was willing to lose his life for our sakes in order that we might experience salvation. (Luke 9:24).

As Jesus fulfills the Scriptures as Messiah to reveal God’s upside down kingdom, he does not assert his divine authority as might. Jesus does not seek vengeance or retribution upon all who are culpable of his death. Jesus humbles himself yet again with nothing short of mercy. Jesus prays forgiveness for the ones who do not know their need for it (Luke 23:34). Jesus extends eternal forgiveness to the unlikely one who boldly asks for it (Luke 23:43).

Today we gather around God’s Story and the Lord’s Table. And we are seeing new meaning as all this unfolds. Each time we break the bread and share the cup we remember that we are claimed in God's forever family and in the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The cross moves us to see our actions as God truly sees them. Even though the human condition of sin condemns us, God loves us too much to let us live in bondage to it.

There is only One who is able to condemn; that is Jesus Christ our Lord. And yet Christ came and lived among us; Christ died for us; Christ rose for us; Christ lives in power for us; and Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is indeed a new creation. The old life has come and gone and new life begins because of God’s gift of forgiveness.

As Christ’s forgiveness changes our lives, we are also to live into the power of God’s mercy with others. We are to forgive as Jesus forgives. C.S. Lewis says, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has already forgiven the inexcusable in you and me.” That kind of mercy is needed today more than ever before in a culture that prioritizes the assertion of power over humility and meekness…. in a culture where many are still scoffed at, marginalized, and voiceless.

The bread and the cup nourish our bodies, hearts, and minds to work as the body of Christ to bring about God’s upside down Kingdom. We are to let go of our personal agendas and lose our lives for Christ’s sake in order to find true life. God’s gift of mercy empowers us to step out of our comfort zones to work for God’s justice. Let me just tell you on behalf of the Isaiah Bible studies here at the church - that it is not enough to just love Jesus.

God uses the cross to open our eyes to the injustices around us in our neighborhoods, our state, our country, and our world. Seeking justice for individuals, groups, and communities who have no voice is not easy work. It is not popular work. But following Christ’s compassion to lift up the lowly is the grit of the gospel. It is the mark of holiness, character, and integrity of our Savior.

Today we take the feast to the streets. We have an opportunity to bring a glimpse of God’s upside down kingdom today as we deliver Thanksgiving meals to neighbors in need. Just imagine the countless ways God might lead us in the ways of justice this upcoming year.

Today as we touch, taste, and experience God’s mercy again this morning, let us remember who Jesus is. May the bread we break and the cup we share strengthen us to boldly follow him.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sermon: An Example to Imitate

"An Example to Imitate"
Isaiah 65: 17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 13, 2016
Stewardship Commitment Sunday

17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
- Isaiah 65: 17-25

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
- 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

From a young age we are drawn to mentoring figures. They are people who live their lives in such a way that we want to follow their example. A parent’s work often captures a young mind to imitate their parent’s persona by wearing the tool belt or suit and briefcase too. A pastor makes a lasting impression while making time to be present with children and youth in their developmental years. A neighbor or family member is cherished by the way she or he endures life’s hardships with nothing less than grace and gratitude. The examples we follow shape the ways in which we interpret the story of the world and the story of ourselves.

Paul speaks to his flock in Thessalonica and lifts an example for them to follow. He wants the community of faith to look at the example of the apostles and their spiritual leadership. Remember Paul is not lifting up himself alone but rather the model of Jesus Christ which has completely convicted Paul’s conscience. Paul strived to teach, preach, and live out the gospel in the community and in his own life. And Paul strongly encouraged his followers to imitate his example in Christ not in a pious way but in the practical matters of life, particularly in their work.

The daily work that we engage in is held within one of two differing frameworks.

One framework is written by the culture’s assumptions. In Paul’s time, work was framed by an honor-shame society. One’s work or business would do anything to elevate the patriarch’s social status, even to the point of shaming and exploiting others. Fear became a powerful motivator. It was an unjust worldview because it sought self-benefit at the expense of others. This framework is still alive and well today as ladders across the economic spectrum are climbed and each step up is made by a fear of loss and a sacrifice of integrity.

The other framework is written by the gospel’s expectations. Tim Keller is a Presbyterian pastor and I share his words: “God is Creator of the world, and our work mirrors his creative work when we create culture that conforms to God’s will and vision for human beings. God does not simply create; but also loves, cares for, and nurtures his creation. God’s loving care comes to us largely through the labor of others. As an extension of God’s providential work, our labor has its orientation toward our neighbor, and we must ask how it can be done excellently and for his or her good.”[1]

Work was given to our biblical parents as a way to join God in a relational way to help God’s creation flourish. When humanity’s work became tainted by sin then God knew creation and humanity could only flourish through the grace of redemption and reconciliation. This is the work God invites you and I to be a part of. Therefore as stewards of God’s grace we are to seek intersections between our work and faith in order to bring about common good that bears witness to God’s renewal.

The Confession of 1967 offers a powerful image of how we are to do this: “To be reconciled to God is to be sent into the world as his reconciling community… The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have set the pattern for [our work].”[2]

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ move us to share common life together. We do this by seeking to mend the divisions among us. We look for the common values that unite us, build up shared accountability, and support one another in times of need.

The suffering that Christ endured opens our eyes to the sufferings of humanity. We are given a new lens in which to see the world around us through the compassion of Christ. As we are moved to lift up our sisters and brothers who suffer, we also are given a unique opportunity to see Christ in one another.

The death of Jesus Christ humbles us as we are often complicit to injustice. And yet Christ died for us in order to reveal God’s promise of salvation to bring new life and justice. As we take steps to imitate Christ’s example in our work and faith, we begin to discover God’s steadfast love to right the wrongs and bring renewal in our hardships.

Even as God is at work to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, we are called to find meaning through the work of our hands. Our hands are to join God in building the Kingdom. We find joy in our work even in difficult times as we join God in bringing eternal hope into the broken places of life. Oftentimes we see God at work through our mentoring examples to experience glimpses of this pattern.

The example of Jesus Christ is the only one worthy of imitating. God gives us an important example to follow as we work in uncertain and anxious times. Fear easily causes us to take our focus away from the gospel narrative.

Many of us are perplexed by that medical diagnosis. Fear causes us to feel isolated and alone.

We are questioning if we will have enough financial resources in an unpredictable economy. Fear makes generosity look foolish.

We are stressed about the political landscape. Fear of our political differences has brought conflict on a national level, in the workplace, and even touches our families and friends. And we are uncertain how to bring healing to these divisions in order to move forward.

Fear is an enemy that makes our work counterproductive in God’s vision for us. No matter what the uncertainty or fear is that weighs upon us as we work- we are to strive to reframe our faith and life from a perspective of abundance and flourishing for all.

The biblical texts as us what narrative are we following? The culture’s assumptions or the gospel’s expectations?

It is an important question because as we look ahead into the upcoming year we have a lot of work to do. If you and I are to truly be stewards of God’s grace then we are to prepare ourselves to be sent out into the world as instruments of God’s grace.
The hope is that God will intersect our unique gifts with the community’s needs if we are open to the Spirit. We are to allow the example of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection to bear weight in the work we do at school, on the farm, in the office, at the hospice bedside, and right here within this community and beyond.

You see, the integrity of the gospel is at stake. God has given us God’s very heart in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And God invites you and me to follow Jesus’ example and work together to build up a community of love as we talked about last week.

The children helped us to see a glimpse of this vision earlier this morning. We all receive God’s gift of grace through many blessings. And God has called us to stretch out our arms and hands to share the gift of God’s grace and even God’s own heart with others. Just as it takes a number of hands to make a circle of hearts, it takes all of us to reach out the doorways of our homes, our workplaces, and this church to share our blessings that work together to build up a community of love.

Stewardship means that together we are God’s reconciling community at work in the world. We give to God our time, our talents, our treasures, and our very selves. This giving is rooted in making generous sacrifices of grace as Christ made the ultimate sacrifice of grace for us. Let us join our hearts and hands in this holy work to imitate Christ’s example.

If we are intentional in our efforts then we will have the opportunity to create moments of grace that will be spiritual examples for others in life changing ways. Christ leads us to interpret the world and our very selves with nothing less than grace and gratitude. That kind of framework will not let us be weary from doing what is right.

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] Timothy Keller, “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work” (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), p. 184.
[2] The Confession of 1967 (9.31, 9.32) The Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002).

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sermon: Moments of Grace

"Moments of Grace"
2 Thessalonians 2: 13-17 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 6, 2016
Stewardship Sunday

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
- 2 Thessalonians 2: 13-17

I want to take you back to another time and another place. We are going to my hometown in Virginia. The skies are bright and the Blue Ridge Mountains wrap around the town in glorious peaks of fall color. We are all in the high school – I know this may be a stretch but stay with me!

The afternoon bell has rung early to dismiss the classes for the big pep rally. Of course you remember the feeling of absolute joy to leave class early! Everyone has gathered into the gymnasium and we are filling the seats of the bleachers on both sides. The cheerleaders are facing each side of the bleachers and they are cheering the best cheers of the season.

These young adults are building the excitement of the student body for the BIG GAME! Not only are we lifting our voices but we are also clapping our hands and stomping our feet. As we get louder and louder the cheerleaders throw more and more candy and streamers our way into the stands. Just imagine 20 teenagers tossing out candy like Jay Jones hands out here every Sunday!

That kind of excitement is just contagious. All of this momentum is causing us to focus on what matters. It’s not just focusing on the big game, although a win would be awesome –especially if it were as big of a win as the Cubs winning the World Series!

The focus is to believe in something bigger than ourselves! We are not just groups of students, adults, clubs, or sports teams. When we are all united as one then we feel the strength of community. And that energized strength we feel together in that pep rally transfers out into the hallways, the classrooms, the football field, out into the streets, and even in the way we see ourselves.

Paul’s second letter to Thessalonica was to rally the community of faith. Paul celebrated the good work of the body for the congregation was steadfast in its faith during hard times. Paul wanted to motivate and rally the community to keep the main thing the main thing. And that was to build up the kingdom of God.

God has called each and every one of us for a purpose. That purpose is bigger than ourselves. Paul says God has chosen us for the purpose of being changed by God’s amazing grace. The ways in which the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the guidance of Holy Spirit are at work in our lives is not for our sakes alone.

You and I are not the sole benefactors of faith. We are to let God take our moments and our days and let them flow as ceaseless praise. We are invited to let God take our hands and let them move at the impulse of God’s love. As God works through our lives the gift of faith moves among us to rally, encourage, and motivate others. And these moments of grace are something to behold because they invite us to experience the strength of being in community with God and one another.

Grace changes us as we are touched by God’s hospitality to know we belong to God. Grace claims us.

Grace draws us closer to the cross as we sing it, confess it, pray it, and proclaim it. We even touch grace with tangible expressions like boxes filled with hearts, water in the font, and the feast at God’s Table made with homemade bread and juice.

Grace nurtures our families, children, and youth to love Jesus authentically in the ordinary spaces of life. Even our youngest disciples like Vivie Lee and Logan spot God at work among us.

Grace moves us to dig deeper into God’s Word to equip our faith and shape our interactions at home, in the workplace, and out in the world. Grace moves us into a new way of being.

Grace opens our hands and our hearts. It gives us courage to take God’s Word seriously to love our neighbors as ourselves by serving them with compassion in times of need.

Grace tethers our relationships with God and one another with genuine concern as we are strengthened in times of intergenerational play, fellowship, and care.

Grace empowers the spiritual leaders among us to discern and encourage our commitment to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. As we experience the grace of Christ why would we want to follow anyone or anything else?

We have all experienced these moments of grace this past year at Van Wyck Presbyterian through our various teams of ministry. As our teams unite within these key moments of grace we feel the strength of something very special among us.

God is indeed doing something special here. God invites you and me to be a part of building up the kingdom. Not only does God want us to have a special connection with these moments of grace. God also wants us to connect to the vision of the kingdom. God’s kingdom is a community of love.

The children helped us to see a glimpse of this vision earlier this morning. We all receive God’s gift of grace through many blessings. And God has called us to stretch out our arms and hands to share the energy and the gift of God’s grace with others. Just as it takes a number of hands to make a circle of hearts, it takes all of us to reach out and share our blessings to build a community of love.

The kingdom vision here at Van Wyck Presbyterian is to Grow in Christ in Spirit, Service and Number. My pastoral hope in this core vision is this:

(1) To grow in Spirit we grow as disciples. That means we follow Jesus’ trust in God’s Word, prayerful relationship, and abundant provision. I am so thankful for our children, youth, and adults who are growing in God’s Word as disciples here in Sunday School and small group Bible studies. May we continue to make and equip disciples this year!

(2) To grow in Service we put our faith in action. We continue to serve our neighbors here and beyond. I am so thankful for our ministry teams which are reaching out into the community in fellowship and mission. This is bringing excitement and it is contagious! May we continue to nurture servant leadership this year!

(3) To grow in Number we say “Come and See!” We continue to invite others to Come and See what God is doing here. I am thankful for the gifts of welcome and hospitality here among us. May we continue to share enthusiasm for all God is doing here so that others may find the MORE of what they are looking for in a deeper faith journey.

God has called each of us through our proclamation of the good news so that we may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:14). Do you know what is the best part of receiving the gift of God’s grace? The best part is giving it away. God invites you and me to give away God’s abundant grace in order to make the vision of God’s Kingdom a reality.

Your pledge and mine is an authentic response to God’s call upon our lives. A pledge is to affirm that all we have is truly a gift from God. Just as God has promised to embrace us in steadfast love and faithfulness, our pledges are a promise to trust God is making us kingdom people. And kingdom people trust the power of God’s saving grace is working through us more than we can hope, ask, or imagine.

Doug and I pledge to this church because God has changed our lives and we want to be a part of God’s vision to change the lives of others. Years ago when we first decided to pledge at our home church it was a small commitment. However each year God has been faithful as we have grown in our trust of what God can do through our gifts as we increase them.

I am grateful for the growing faithfulness of this church as a handful of new pledges were made last year. And I trust that God will continue to be at work among us to increase our responses of trusting God this upcoming year. There is no pledge that is too small or too generous for God to use in building up the Kingdom.

This is an exciting time in the life of Van Wyck Presbyterian. We are celebrating the good ministries our teams are doing with God’s help. Our spiritual leaders and I hope you feel the energy of God cheering us on! God is at work to reveal the strength of community and I cannot wait to see what is up God’s sleeve in 2017.

Prayerfully consider the ways God is calling you to share your time, passions, and treasures to build up this community of love. Each of us wants to belong to a community marked with moments of grace that touch our lives. I promise you that God will be faithful as we grow in our trust of what God will do.

In the name of God our Provider, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Sermon: A Saintly Inheritance

"A Saintly Inheritance"
Psalm 119: 137-144; Ephesians 1: 11-23 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 30, 2016
All Saints Day

You are righteous, O Lord,
and your judgements are right.
You have appointed your decrees in righteousness
and in all faithfulness.
My zeal consumes me
because my foes forget your words.
Your promise is well tried,
and your servant loves it.
I am small and despised,
yet I do not forget your precepts.
Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
and your law is the truth.
Trouble and anguish have come upon me,
but your commandments are my delight.
Your decrees are righteous for ever;
give me understanding that I may live.
- Psalm 119: 137-144

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
- Ephesians 1: 11-23

Have you ever turned the pages of a loved one’s Bible? It can be an open window into their life of faith. Last year my mother shared her mother’s Bible with me. Her name was Evie but I called her Granny. I loved turning the pages of her Bible. It was sacred space to look for Granny’s handwriting in the margins, to see what she had underlined, and to read random prayers and notes from Sunday School classes and sermons. Granny had left insights about her spiritual treasures.

One of the Scriptures she underlined was from Micah 7:7, “As for me, I look to the Lord for his help; I wait for God to save me; he will hear me.” I can imagine Granny praying these words in her life.

My mom shared Granny was a woman of deep faith. She went to church as often as she could. Faith was not just important to Granny; it was the hope that kept her going. Faith was a guiding promise through the challenges of tobacco farming, in the highs and lows of marriage, and in the joys and struggles of parenting. Sadly Granny passed away when was just 5 years old.

When I was in early elementary school I remember sitting next to mom in church and hearing my mom recite the Lord’s Prayer. I remember being in awe that everyone in the pews knew how to say those words together in unison. I asked Mom after worship how she learned that prayer. “Your Granny taught it to me when I was your age,” she said. The gift of faith that Granny so treasured was passed down to my mom, who passed it along to my sister and me. Now Doug and I are passing this treasure along to our children. The passing down of faith has been the experience for many of us gathered here today.

The Apostle Paul tells us that in Christ we, as believers, have obtained a great spiritual treasure – a saintly inheritance. In baptism we are engrafted into the fulfillment of God’s promise made with Abraham through Jesus Christ. Not only do we share in Christ’s death and newly resurrected life, but we are adopted into God’s great family of faith. The children of God are as numerous as the stars and for over two-thousand years we have continued to inherit God’s rich blessing of the Promised Land.

Our saintly inheritance teaches us that in life and in death we belong to God. The gospel of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13) is illustrated with the biblical image that in our Father’s House are many dwelling places where Christ goes and prepares a place for us to live eternally (John 14:1-2). For in the fullness of time through Christ, God is gathering up all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10).

There is just a breath between this life and life eternal. When our loved ones enter into the Church Triumphant this saintly inheritance brings us great comfort. The eternal hope of the Resurrection lifts our hearts praising and trusting in God’s glorious power. Nothing in all the world can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ – not death, nor life, nor any power or principality (Romans 8: 37-39

God’s love creates all that is good and faithful and inspiring in us. God’s love forgives and redeems us. God’s love quells our pain and suffering and forever wipes away the tears from our eyes. God’s love brings full healing and wholeness to our broken bodies and broken hearts. God’s love embraces us in such full measure that we cannot comprehend it all on this side of eternity.

But this saintly inheritance is not just a comfort in our times of grief. Paul says we have obtained an inheritance so that as we set our hope on Christ we might truly live right here and right now for the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:11-12).

This week I was seeking some spiritual treasure in Paul’s words – how do we truly live today praising the richness of God’s blessings? The Westminster Confession of Faith from our Book of Confessions gave me some insight: “The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Book of Confessions, 7.001).

We glorify God as we walk the ancient paths of faith. With each step taken, we remember what we have learned through our spiritual ancestors. We remember beloved family members and friends who have inspired us by their faithfulness.

Remember faithfulness is not about a life lived perfectly, but it is about striving to follow God one day at a time by Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s guidance. Through this gift of faith God is able to accomplish far more than we can ever hope, ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20) That is the hope that keeps us going!

We enjoy God forever as we seek to live each day in a growing relationship with God and one another. Any good relationship needs attention, nurture, and purpose therefore; we make these a priority also in our faith journeys.

We pray for spaces to focus our attention upon God to reveal a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the ordinary places of life (Ephesians 1:17). As we come to know God’s heart more and more, our hearts and minds and lives are nurtured, enriched, and hopefully changed day by day (Ephesians 1:18). The more united we become with God’s heart, the more we discern the hope to which God has called us (Ephesians 1:18). Through this saintly inheritance God has given each of us spiritual gifts and treasures to bring about God’s purposes in our homes, communities, and in the wider world. As we glorify God and enjoy him each and every day, we find the secret of what it means to live fully alive in our joys and in our sorrows.

The secret is found in the cross of Jesus Christ.[1]

Just look at the cross in the chancel area. The vertical beam stretches a great distance from top to bottom. It symbolizes the unity Christ grants us with God’s immeasurable greatness at the very top and reaching down to unite us with the generations of the saints; those who have entered the Church Triumphant and even down to our biblical ancestors.

The horizontal beam reaches wide just like Christ’s own arms reached openly with compassion for all of God’s children to come to him. Christ’s open arms of sacrificial love unite us with our current sisters and brothers in faith stretching from here and all the way across the world.

It is where the vertical and horizontal beams of the cross intersect that we see the secret of the cross. It is here that God reveals that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ unites the saints of the past and the saints today in a never-ending community held in God’s deep embrace.

It is in the cross that we see Paul’s image of a saintly inheritance. It proclaims our eternal hope when our baptismal journey is complete. It proclaims God’s presence and peace in the midst of our grief and loss. And it proclaims how we truly live to glorify God and enjoy him forever in an intimate relationship.

On this All Saints Day may we remember our cherished stories of this saintly inheritance that has been passed down through the generations. For it is through remembering our stories that God opens spiritual windows with new meaning.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source Referenced:
[1] David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Pastoral Perspective by Sarah Birmingham Drummond, p. 234.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Humble Strength"
Luke 18: 9-14; 2 Timothy 4: 6-18
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
- Luke 18: 9-14

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
- 2 Timothy 4: 6-18

Jesus met people where they were in the ordinary spaces of life. As Jesus was walking towards the costly grace that awaited him in Jerusalem, Jesus read the human landscape around him. Jesus knew what was in everyone’s heart (John 2:25), all that is good and faithful and our contradictions too. So Jesus offers a parable of two men which points to the truth about God even as he points to the truth about the human heart.

On this side of the cross we give the Pharisees a bad reputation but in Jesus’ time they were considered faithful interpreters of God’s Law. Their role was to guide the people in God’s ways. And they set ritual boundaries to maintain their religious purity. Pharisees were seen in the temple on a regular basis in regards to their role in society.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was considered at odds with God’s Law. Jewish tradition forbade this occupation. Collecting taxes was perceived to be dishonest and impure. Tax collectors were rarely seen in the temple as they were considered outcasts in Jewish culture.

What is so surprising about Jesus’ parable is the prayer which these two men utter in the temple. In the first century mouths would have gaped to hear the Pharisee utter a prayer up to God in self-righteousness. Chins would have hit the floor to hear the tax collector, standing along the temple margins, utter a prayer in dismay for God’s mercy and forgiveness and then to actually receive it.[1]

Jesus not only reveals the contradictions within each of the men and in society, but he reveals God is moved by a heart that recognizes one’s need for God. You see, God is not moved by prideful attitudes of how closely we walk the narrow and straight path, or how many check marks we have on the ‘How to be Faithful’ list. Boasting of our faithfulness denies God’s work within us. God is always the One to take the first step in our lives.

If we exalt ourselves with our works and we devalue others with an attitude of contempt then we have missed the mark of being a student of Scripture, of being a follower of God, of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We have missed the mark because we have failed to look inward and consider what is common to every human being: no matter what our pasts or present holds, we have all fallen short of God’s glory.

Neil White had a comfortable life in Oxford, Mississippi. He was a family man with a wife and two young children. He was a generous giver to his church. He was a journalist and a successful magazine publisher. In 1993 he was charged with a federal crime of bank fraud. Neil was thirty-three years old. He had transferred $750,000 of checks from one bank account to another to keep his business afloat. Neil was sentenced to serve eighteen months in a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana.

The prison was twenty miles south of Baton Rouge and had formerly been a federal medical facility for over one hundred years for patients with Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy. In 1993 this federal prison was nested in the medical center which still held 130 beds in use for these patients who had become outcasts losing their families, homes, and any dignity or quality of life.

Neil’s eighteen month sentence at Carville was a defining moment; so much so that he wrote his memoir entitled, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” When he arrived at Carville he made some quick judgments about the patients with leprosy. He recalled, “[He] didn’t want to breathe the air, or accidentally brush up against one of them, or get close enough that the infection could reach out, take hold in [his] body, and turn [him] into a horror.”[2]

The patients and prison inmates crossed paths in designated areas of the facility. One day Neil met Ella. She was an older African American woman in a wheel chair. Ella had been quarantined at Carville since elementary school. She had lost her legs as a result of leprosy. As Neil listened to Ella’s words more than his inner judgement, he began to see a woman who was kind and had a gentle spirit. The more Neil talked with Ella the more he forgot about her disease. Their conversations began to shift Neil’s perceptions. Living as an outcast in solidarity “with the victims of leprosy” truly became a sanctuary of mercy, change, and hope.[3]

As time passed, Neil talked with a number of the patients and inmates. The journalist within him set out to listen to their life stories as he began to process his own. Neil’s biggest questions were considering how those eighteen months should change him and how he could return home to face all the people he had wronged. He had lost everything – his marriage, his children, his job, his reputation. Prior to his arrest Neil had always been a man who sought to be praised for his accomplishments and pride had gotten the best of him.

One day Neil asked Ella, “Ella, how do people change?”
She replied, “Hard to do. Hard to do.” Ella hesitated.
Neil tried to prod her asking her what she was thinking.
“Keep meddlin,” Ella said.
Neil responded, “I don’t want to interview anyone else.”
“Maybe you been asking the wrong folks,” Ella replied.
Neil recalled he had talked with Father Reynolds, Reverend Ray, Sister Margie, every interesting inmate and dozens of leper patients. Ella had thought of someone else who could offer insight. So Neil asked who that would be.
Ella leaned forward and in her soft voice said, “Your own self.”

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God calls us to look inside ourselves and consider the contradictions between our faithfulness and waywardness. Inner reflection is faith’s motivation towards change for God desires truth in our inward being (Psalm 51:6). Our confessions are always individual and communal, two sides of one coin.

What are the contradictions between faithfulness and dismay that you see within yourself and more broadly? The text asks us to consider this question. I have been pondering that question for myself. As a broken human being, a woman, a mother, and a pastor I feel the gravity of Jesus’ parable in light of this political season. I know I am not the only one dismayed.

I am dismayed as I wrestle with my own judgments. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has completely devalued women, minorities, interfaith groups, and the social graces of democracy. I am dismayed with the self-righteous rhetoric that has carelessly named groups of people as deplorable. I am dismayed with the ways we as a nation are quick to dehumanize any candidate. I am dismayed when we judge and label one another for the diverse lenses of faith that we interpret political issues through. We do all need to make decisions regarding who to vote for and why. But we must also decide how to model and teach our children and the younger generations the virtues of disagreement with regards to respect and dignity.

Every institution in our world, country, community and even the Church is tainted by sin. While our elections of national, state, and local leaders are important, there is no one perfect political party or candidate which will be the savior for all our problems. At the end of the day every candidate is a child of God. They are men and women who are broken and who need God’s mercy just like the Pharisee and tax collector did; just like you and I do.

It is worth repeating that God is still sovereign and Jesus Christ is still the only Savior we need. But Jesus was the only one worthy to speak of his righteousness, yet he never would boast of his perfect obedience to God. “Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself - made himself of no value like an outcast, taking the form of a slave, being born of human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by fully recognizing his reliance upon God and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Even Christ recognized his need for God’s mercy therefore we are to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). As disciples we are called to follow Christ’s example. At the end of the day there is only one thing that matters. And that one thing is to recognize our common need for God’s mercy in our lives. It is the core truth of what it means to walk as a disciple. The path of faith is designed to take each step fully depending upon God.

God’s mercy was on the loose in the temple, it is on the loose for those who feel like Pharisees, tax collectors, and outcasts, and it is on the loose even in our lives today. God’s mercy proclaims that nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy finds us and redeems us when we are honest with ourselves and the world around us. Mercy triumphs over judgment. But it takes faithfulness to be honest and faithfulness is not about perfection; it never has been.

Faithfulness is having the courage to daily interview ourselves about what needs to change within our hearts while claiming our need for God’s mercy to re-write our stories again and again. Faithfulness is meeting our sisters and brothers on the intersections of life and seeing our common brokenness through the lenses of mercy and grace. That kind of faithfulness is what humble strength looks like.

May we go out empowered to take the next steps as a disciple and never settle for less than that.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Art image, "Jesus in Gethsemane," by He Qi
[1] Alyce Mckenzie, “Parables for Today” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 57-58.
[2] Neil White, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 19.
[3] Neil White, p. 78.
[4] Neil White, pp. 190-191.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling with God

Sermon Series
"Steps of a Disciple: Wrestling With God"
Genesis 32: 22-31; 2 Timothy 3: 10-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
- Genesis 32: 22-31

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3: 10-17

Whether Jacob knew it or not, he was about to face his limits. This plays out quite artistically in the Hebrew language which our English translations do not capture. Jacob (ya’aqov) approached the Jabbok River (yabboq) and there another wrestled him (ye’abeq). Do you hear the play on words?

The limits drawn around and throughout Jacob’s story were lines connected by a life of struggle. From the time Jacob and his twin brother Esau were in Rebekah’s womb they struggled and caused her great discord. They were two nations divided in her womb (Gen 25:22-23). Jacob’s name means “supplanter” or one who uses force or scheming to take another’s place. And Jacob indeed was a schemer and manipulator.

Jacob deceived Esau to sell his birthright for a cup of soup (Genesis 25: 29-34). Jacob deceived his father Isaac to receive the patriarch’s final blessing which enraged Esau enough to want to kill his brother (Genesis 27). After Jacob left home to make a life for himself, he continued to scheme and deceived his father-in-law Laban to profit himself at Laban’s expense (Genesis 30: 37-43). It’s an understatement to say that Jacob lived his life as a man on the run.

Despite the ways Jacob sought what benefited him, God continued to pursue Jacob. God met Jacob in a dream with a promise to bless him as God has once blessed Abraham. But God also instructed Jacob to return to his home with the assurance that God would be with Jacob and would not leave him until God had done what God had promised (Genesis 28:13-15).

Something within Jacob was not content with all that was estranged, divided, and unresolved in his life. So Jacob, his family, and his livestock set out to follow God’s direction home to meet his brother Esau. On the way Jacob encountered God’s messengers to share that Esau was indeed coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men in his company.

Only here do we see Jacob utter a prayer to God, “O God of my Father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and your kindred and I will do you good,’ I am too small for the least of your steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother” (Genesis 32: 9-11).

Hoping to appease his brother and find favor, Jacob sent his family and livestock across the river to meet Esau. And now Jacob is left alone as the night presses in. He comes face to face with his own limitations and there another wrestled with Jacob. This other is a spiritual presence that we read to be a divine messenger or angel of God. They grapple in the dust through the night.

But notice that Jacob does not initiate the wrestling match. It is this divine being. I cannot help but wonder if this angel was trying to create an opportunity for Jacob to wrestle with the culmination of his life in a constructive way? Jacob was preparing to face the biggest conflict of his life and it brought Jacob great anxiety and uncertainty to do this. He did not know what would happen on the other side of that river.

He was at the most vulnerable point of his life. By wrestling with the angel, Jacob was grappling with his own self and all that was unfinished. It is a hard thing to face the worries, fears, uncertainties, and conflicts in life head on. Any of one of us would probably rather turn around and run from them. Isn’t it easier to cut off these areas of life rather than dealing with them?

Remember Jacob had prayed that God would deliver him through this ordeal of facing his greatest challenge. If Jacob truly wanted deliverance he could not avoid facing this struggle. Jacob could not go around it. He could only go through it. And God promised to be with him and to do Jacob good.

Wrestling gives us an image of God fighting for Jacob as Abraham’s grandson exerts all of his physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. Once Jacob’s energy is spent he is freed to let go of all the loose ends of his life and to let God begin the process of reconciliation.

I also wonder if the angel wrestled with Jacob to bring him to a place of humility. Jacob had always grabbed the heels of opportunity to benefit himself over and against his own family. In order for God to fulfill the blessing promised, Jacob would need to grapple with this new experience to learn the virtue of humility. Jacob would need to see the limits of his own pride in the face of God’s steadfast love and strength.

And so wrestling also portrays an image of God fighting Jacob’s “stubbornness and pride.”[1] As soon as the angel strikes Jacob on the hip socket, Jacob begins to feel the effects of humility and he is forever changed by the struggle.

As darkness began to give way to the rise of a new day, Jacob knew something about God’s deliverance that he did not know before. God would not let go of Jacob in order to do something powerful in Jacob’s life. And so Jacob asks the angel to bless him. He receives the new name of Israel for he had striven with God and with humans and had endured. And yet we know that Israel – God’s chosen people – continued to struggle with God throughout the generations of our shared history.

Jacob’s story – Israel’s story is indeed our story. For we continue to wrestle with God and all that life holds.

We fight with our fears and being vulnerable with God.
We are challenged by family dynamics and strained relationships.
We struggle to find a sense of who were are within all our imperfections and weaknesses.
We wrestle with all that we have done and left undone.
We grapple with the ways God’s Word speaks to life issues, injustice, and concerns.
We weigh the costs of what we have sacrificed to find meaning in life.

No matter what we struggle with I think we are all searching to find something that will bring a sense of peace. We feel the ways that struggling with ourselves pulls us apart and we long to feel the effects of reconciliation.

So hear this encouraging word - do not fear the struggle. Do not fear the struggle because the most important part of it is to show up in an effort to be made whole. We see this truth in Jacob, in countless other stories in Scripture, and in Christ’s faithfulness of sacrificial love to struggle for us on the cross in order that we be made whole in the promise of resurrection.

Showing up to face our limits is an opportunity for us to draw near to our Creator. It is a space to be real with the One who knows the full depths of all we question, doubt, and endure. God honors our efforts to show up trusting God will deliver us. God will fight for us as we grow in our commitment as a disciple. God will also interrupt our lives in an effort to humble us and loosen the grip of our own self-will.

Whether God is fighting for us or God is fighting against our stubborn pride, we too experience God’s blessing if we will just let go and let God. God continues to pursue us in an effort to work through all that is standing in the way of empowering you and me for every good work in this gift of faith.

I encourage you to be strong and courageous to engage the struggles in life for the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go. And because of that we will be forever changed by our struggling, again and again. It is a humbling experience for sure. The only things we have to lose are those things in our hearts and minds that God is trying to shake loose from our lives. There is no life experience that is wasted upon God for God can use it all to teach us, heal us, and empower us to cross our limitations into God’s promises of a new day and a newly resurrected life.

To wrestle with God proclaims that no matter what our struggle entails – no matter how overwhelming it seems – no matter how vulnerable we are – God does indeed enter into the struggle with us. God never lets us go. God desires to strengthen us through our human weakness so that God’s power of redemption and reconciliation might be revealed.

May we take the next step of a disciple and never forget that truth of the gospel.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

Art Image "Jacob Wrestles with God," by Jack Baumgartner
[1] D. W. Cotter, “Berit Olam: Genesis” (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 246.