Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Lord's Prayer: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

“The Lord’s Prayer: Lead Us Not into Temptation”
A Lenten Sermon Series 5/6
Matthew 6: 9-13
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2018

The season of Lent helps us to prepare for the ultimate claim of the Christian faith which we celebrate on Easter Sunday: Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life changes the world and changes us. Jesus’ demonstration of God’s unconditional love is a climactic moment revealing God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

The past five weeks we have sat at Jesus’ feet to learn the prayer he taught his disciples. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us the words to pray for God’s kingdom to come and invites us to join God in this holy work of changing the world. The Lord’s Prayer hinges upon right relationships with God and one another.

The Lord’s Prayer builds up in bold intensity with each petition. Jesus instructs us to pray by his lived example.

The baseline of any relationship is trust. Therefore, Jesus begins his prayer with a foundational relationship of great intimacy and trust with God as a divine parent Matthew 6:9).

Jesus gives up his will for God’s purposes in his life and requires us to do the same as a cost of discipleship (Mathew 6:10).

Jesus proclaims as we trust God to provide our daily bread then God also moves us to be generous to empower all of God’s children to flourish (Matthew 6:11).

Jesus requires our relationships to bear the weight of God’s mercy and grace by forgiving others as we have already been forgiven (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

And today Jesus’ sixth petition reaches the most intense point, the climactic moment, of his prayer. Listen to Matthew’s account in chapter 6, verse 13: “And do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us form the evil one.”

We hear Jesus’ petition, and some ask, “If God is loving and trustworthy, then why should we have to pray for God to NOT lead us into trials or temptations?” It’s a real question, isn’t it?

I want for you to remember that Jesus’ prayer comes through his lived experience.

As soon as Jesus was anointed for his ministry in baptism and claimed in God’s purposes for salvation, Matthew says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1).

That word tempted also means tested. The devil or the advocate tempted Jesus to not rely upon God. God tested Jesus’ human obedience. And yet Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited (Philippians 2:6).

Jesus was tempted to be self-reliant, to put God to the test, and to trust his own pride to rule the kingdom of this world, thereby forsaking God and God’s purposes (Matthew 4: 4,7, 10).

Jesus was tested to be faithful to God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and strengthened to fully obey God by affirming we live by every word that comes from the mouth of God; we do not test God but trust God’s presence and covenant love; we worship God alone.

Christ sympathizes with our weaknesses because he has been tempted as we are, yet without sin – he lived in perfect relationship with God and with humanity (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus’ ministry came to a close with temptation and testing too. As he knew his hour had come, he threw himself on the ground to pray three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup (of bitter suffering) pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

And as Jesus’ wrestled and prayed to be centered upon God’s will and not his own, his disciples were not filled with the same vigor; in their confusion and misunderstanding of what Jesus was doing, they fell asleep. And Jesus says, “Could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Matthew 26:41).

The Christian faith does not remove temptation and testing from the journey of life; rather it is our spiritual compass to navigate through it. To follow God’s direction with this compass, we need to cultivate time for prayer and steeping our spirits in God’s Word.

Jesus teaches us to pray for our obedience to God to mature daily so that we may not fall into temptation to trust ourselves over and against God’s will and God’s purposes. Sin deceives us to think we do not need God.

However, when we do fall short of God’s glory because of the condition of human sin, we pray that Christ’s redemption will raise us up, reconcile what is broken, and free us. Christ frees us to live in the mercy of God’s forgiveness and to live into the wisdom that our true sense of humanity is found in Christ’s example.

Jesus teaches us to pray for testing to develop our faith daily in positive ways. God tested Israel in the wilderness to reveal their weakness would only be made strong by fully relying on God. God tests our faith too in the hope that we will do the right thing, especially when no one is looking.

I am deeply reminded of the Psalmist’s prayer about this: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 138: 23-24).

Jesus also teaches us to pray for God’s deliverance to lead us into complete victory when his kingdom fully comes. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, or the evil one” (Matthew 6:13).

Scripture does not tell us where evil comes from.

But Scripture does say that God created all things and humanity good (Genesis 1:31). When humanity was tempted by the serpent to reach beyond the boundaries of God’s will in the Garden of Eden, sin entered the world and tainted humanity’s thoughts and actions. Even as humanity was exiled from the Garden, God’s grace claimed us. And God’s grace will always have the ultimate claim upon all of creation and humanity overcoming evil once and for all at the end of time when the new heaven and new earth are created (Revelation 20:10; 21: 1-5).

Shirley Guthrie, Jr. was the Professor Emeritus of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary. He says, “Evil, by definition, is what God does not will and does not do.”[1] There are two kinds of evil: natural evil and moral evil.

Natural evil is the destruction we see from natural disaster. This is part of the natural order of the world. It bears evidence of the brokenness in which we live – the groaning pains of creation – as it too waits to be set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:20).

Moral evil is what humanity does to each other when we deny being our brothers’ keeper (Genesis 4: 8-10). Guthrie says, “The evil we do to each other has three dimensions. It is always rebellion against God and the order of God’s good creation. It is always indifference or enmity toward our fellow human beings. And it is always the self-destructive contradiction of what we ourselves were created to be.” [2]

Moral evil is all too real when we think about the human violence that killed Jesus on the cross, the horrors of the Holocaust and even the mass shootings of today.

Let me be clear that humanity is not evil.

We are created in God’s image and we have all fallen short of God’s glory. Nevertheless, we indeed struggle to understand our capacity to inflict physical, emotional, and spiritual harm upon one another.

The Reformed tradition takes evil seriously. It is a threat against God’s kingdom and to our faith. It is a serious force of darkness that we cannot fully explain. It is an enigma that will not win.

Our tradition warns us to not consider the forces of evil to be equal to the power of God. Guthrie says, “Whenever Satan (the Adversary) or his demons appear in Scripture, it is always the story of God’s power over them and of their defeat and destruction. The devil and his demons are by definition those powers that God in Jesus Christ has already opposed and defeated (Matthew 12:28; Mark 3:22; Luke 10:18; John 12:31; Colossians 1:13).” [3]

Our tradition warns us about personifying Satan or the devil. When we hear the phrase, “The devil made me do it,” we may giggle about it, but in reality a personal concept of the devil can easily become a theological scapegoat denying our condition of human sin.

Evil is not just the utter violence we do to one another, an oppositional force to God and our faith, but also the power of greed, fear, prejudice, and hatred within you and me which threatens the integrity of our faith and the coming kingdom of God.

“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Jesus is saying:

Lead us into deeper obedience to die to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

Lord, turn our tests into triumphs that give you glory!

Deliver us from the agony of evil around us and even that we do to one another and bring us ever closer into your presence, O God.

Jesus’ prayer emboldens us to claim the victory of the cross.

And as we actively wait for God’s kingdom to fully come…not passively wait but ACTIVELY wait… we renounce evil and work together with God to risk shining the light of Christ into the darkness.

The darkness shall never overcome the light!

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

Sourced Referenced:
[1] Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. “Christian Doctrine” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 176.
[2] Guthrie, p. 174.
[3] Guthrie, p. 180.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Lord's Prayer: Forgive Us As We Forgive

“The Lord’s Prayer: Forgive Us as We Forgive”
A Lenten Sermon Series 4/6
Matthew 6: 9-12, 14-15
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 11, 2018

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors...

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
- Matthew 6: 9-12, 14-15

The season of Lent is a time to reflect and examine our commitment to follow Jesus Christ; to look at our spiritual steps in light of the costly grace of the cross and the Easter promise of new life.

Each week we have been breaking down The Lord’s Prayer. Matthew remembers the prayer Jesus taught opens our hearts to God’s vision of the kingdom that is already here and still yet to come. The key of the Lord’s Prayer is that it hinges upon authentic relationships with God and one another.

The example of Jesus’ life and ministry captures a relationship of great intimacy and trust with God as a divine parent. Jesus is bold to lay down his wants for God’s purposes in his life. Jesus proclaims if we trust God to give us our daily bread then God also moves us to be as generous as God. Authentic relationships that receive also give so that all of God’s children may flourish in God’s kingdom.

Today we look at what is essential for our relationships to thrive as we pray for God’s kingdom to come. Jesus prays, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (verse 12).

Each time I think of that word, “forgive,” I pause because I am still learning how to do it. Forgiveness is a complicated thing, isn’t it? It is hard to live as a person of faith in a world that lives at odds with God’s mercy.

Human history says people should get what they deserve; that retributive mindset contradicts Christ’s teachings. Judgement that triumphs over mercy makes forgiveness quite a challenge.

Forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do in life, no matter how young or old we are. It is not magic. It is a mystery of grace.

Jesus’ prayer holds an important truth. God has already forgiven our sins on the cross. Sin includes our thoughts, actions, and even failure to act which offends God.

Just imagine every possible sin humanity has committed, is committing now, and could commit written on the chalk board. Our sins are not just individual, but they are also collective (corporate); they cause hurt to God and to other people. How many miles would that chalkboard extend?

And yet God does not give us what we deserve. God’s love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). God erased everything. God let it go and forgives us through Jesus’ Christ (Romans 5:18).

Does that mean that our actions no longer bear consequences? No. But it does mean that on our own we are incapable of making reparations to restore right relationships with God and one another.

John Calvin says, “Jesus calls sins ‘debts,’ because we owe penalty for them and we could in no way satisfy it unless we were released by this forgiveness. This pardon – this letting go – comes of God’s free mercy, by which he generously wipes out these debts, exacting no payment from us. [Christ alone made us right with God] by his own mercy [on the cross].”[1]

As we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” we remember God’s amazing grace – how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. Jesus’ forgiveness is a gift of salvation and yet do we sin all the more so that grace may abound? By no means, the Apostle Paul would say (Romans 6:1).

We continue to confess our need to be forgiven for there was only one who lived in perfect relationship with God and with humanity; Jesus Christ.

We confess every week in worship that we need God’s help to live into Christ’s faithfulness. The human condition of sin taints everything we think, say, and do. Just as we pinned our prayers of confession to the cross this morning, we trust the good news that by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2: 8-9).

Even as we pray with a growing trust to live into the reality of God’s forgiveness, the second part of Jesus’ petition says as we approach the throne of grace we have already forgiven our debtors (Matthew 6:13).

Did you catch that? As we petition God, we have already forgiven someone who has hurt us. Past tense. Now think about that! Is there someone in your life whom you have not ALREADY forgiven even as you ask God to forgive the terrible awful in you? What does this petition mean?

According to Matthew’s Gospel something is at stake for us to live into reality of God’s merciful kingdom.

Matthew’s Gospel is quite sobering about forgiveness. Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6: 14-15; 7:12).

Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional. And Jesus is not saying that our forgiveness of another is pinned down to a relative time of action; rather the past tense Jesus uses indicates the KIND of action.

Jesus is saying the way we treat one another should bear the weight of God’s grace and mercy. God has already paid the debt we owe because of sin. Therefore, we are to show the same mercy and release the debts others owe us. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).

Not long after Jesus’ teaching on prayer he says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get…In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mathew 7:1-2, 12).

If the Lord’s Prayer is about the integrity of our relationships with God and one another, then we are to prayerfully prepare our minds for action to not live for ourselves. The heart of God’s forgiveness and saving grace on the cross is reconciliation that is self-giving.

The Apostle Paul says, “God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our debts against us, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are now ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5: 18-20).

Our ongoing commitment to forgive others as God freely forgives us is imperative to our calling to be holy, or set apart for God’s purposes, as God is holy(1 Peter 1:15).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once preached, “It is of no use for us to confess our faith in Christ if we have not gone first and reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters…as a church that calls a nation to faith in Christ must itself be the burning fire of love in this nation, a driving force for reconciliation, the place in which all the fires of hatred are extinguished and prideful, hateful people are turned into people who love. Our Reformation churches have accomplished great things, and yet it seems to me that they have not yet succeeded in doing this greatest of all things.”[2]

Bonhoeffer preached these words 84 years ago and yet they still ring true today.

The prayer Jesus teaches invites us to be builders of God’s kingdom. The petition for forgiveness invites us to join Christ in this holy work of mending the estrangements between each other individually and corporately even as God has already been reconciling the world back to God through Jesus Christ.

As the Apostle Paul says, we are to “work out our own salvation with great reverence for it is God who is at work in us enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:12c-13).

Just imagine what might happen if we acknowledge the hurt we have caused our sisters and brothers by what we have done and also what we have left undone. For on any given day each of us is in need of mercy that we do not deserve.

Just imagine what the world might be like if everyone demonstrated their action to forgive another by pinning a prayer to the cross like we did this morning. Give it to God and let it go.

Even as reconciliation is the godly goal of forgiveness, the hope is that we learn from our mistakes and misgivings.

Our sins are ever before us on that cross. The cross leads us to the freedom of walking in God’s path of wisdom, justice, and self-giving love.

The blessing of God’s forgiveness restores to us the joy of the Lord’s salvation and sustains in us a willing spirit to follow Jesus (Psalm 51:3, 12).

In this fourth week of Lent, may we pray to be ambassadors for Christ to be a driving force of reconciliation.

May God’s Holy Spirit move among us so that we owe no one anything, except to love one another (Romans 13:8).

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Reissued in 2006), p. 910.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer "A Testament of Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper One, 1990, 1995), p. 249.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Lord's Prayer: Our Daily Bread

“The Lord’s Prayer: Our Daily Bread”
A Lenten Sermon Series 3/6
Matthew 6: 9-11
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2018

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
- Matthew 6: 9-11

Today we move into the very center of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus has opened our hearts to behold the wonder of God’s desire for us to live in authentic relationships with God and one another through our Teacher and Savior. Jesus has painted a gutsy picture of the vision of God’s kingdom that is already among us and not yet fully revealed (Not what I want, but what you want God). And now Jesus opens our spiritual eyes to see what is essential for all human life to thrive within God’s kingdom.

Jesus says, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).

Just think about that word, “Bread.” I know there are some “bread-heads” among us today. A little bread and butter can certainly bring some comfort at meal time or anytime. Just the smell of freshly baked bread awakens our senses and triggers our hypothalamus gland to say, “I’m hungry!”

Bread is something so ordinary and basic to satisfy human hunger. It represents food and also basic essentials that are inherent and universal requirement to survive. And yet this symbol of bread is something that many of us so easily take for granted.

When Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread,” the disciples would have immediately remembered that God had given their spiritual ancestors daily bread too.

As Moses led God’s people out of slavery and into God’s freedom, the people complained and grumbled. There was nothing but physical lack in the desert – no food and no water. (Exodus 16:2)

God’s people remembered eating their fill of bread from their fleshpots in Egypt (Exodus 16:3). They had such a bad case of the “hangries” that certainly they would die! And yet how easily they forgot the misery they endured for generations and the power of God’s deliverance! There is not a lot of trust needed when we are fed by the hand of complacency; it yields a false sense of comfort.

The wilderness journey was teaching God’s people how to fully rely on God - not just to survive but to thrive and flourish. God provided manna – bread that fell down from heaven. And God instructed Moses that the people were only to gather what they needed each and every day (Exodus 16: 4).

The bread from heaven was a profound demonstration that God knows our needs, hears our cries, and provides for us; a true sign of God’s glory and gift of grace (Providence).

But also, God provided the manna to test the people’s humility; how open were their hearts to trust God alone over the work of their own hands? We do not live on bread alone but by the very word of God (Exodus 16: 4; Deuteronomy 8:16; Mathew 4:4).

John Calvin says, “Jesus’ prayer [moves us to open our hearts and] to give ourselves over to God’s care and entrust ourselves to God’s providence. As our heavenly Father nourishes us today, God will not fail us tomorrow.”[1]

If trust is the common denominator for the success of our relationships, then God has already proven God’s faithfulness beyond measure.

When we say the words Jesus taught, we are united in a confession of faith with our spiritual ancestors saying that against all odds God will provide what we need to thrive in God’s kingdom. That daily provision, that daily bread is a gift of God’s benevolent grace. All that we have and all that we are is a gift from God!

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “As long as the disciples are on earth, they should not be ashamed of asking their heavenly Father for the things they need for their bodily life. God who created human beings intends to preserve and protect human bodies. God does not intend that God’s own creation become disdained. The disciples pray for bread to be shared. They also pray that God will give daily bread to all of God’s children on the whole earth, for they are our brothers and sisters in the flesh.” [2]

Bonhoeffer is pointing to the cost of discipleship. Scripture reveals receiving these gifts from God also bears responsibility to share God’s grace with others.

As Matthew’s Gospel comes to a close he says that when God’s kingdom comes and is complete:

“The Son of Man will come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Then the King will say to those at his right hand:

‘Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you have me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’”
(Matthew 25: 31-36, 40).

Just as God is faithful to provide daily needs, just as Jesus is faithful to meet people where they are, we have a responsibility to be faithful too.

Saying the words Jesus teaches us to pray affirms that we are called to be kingdom builders. We have the privilege of helping to build the kingdom of God with grace and gratitude. God has filled our hearts with grace so that our hands might be willing and ready to live into God’s kingdom vision for humanity to thrive and flourish.

Jesus prayer is shaping us to be the body of Christ so that we might share the bread of life with others and inherit the kingdom.

The Spirit is on the move to open our eyes to those who are poor in spirit. They are the ones who humbly trust God will provide through the generosity of others.

We get that holy nudge to feed those who hunger and thirst for right relationships through ministries of compassion.

Our hearts soften when we see Christ in the eyes of the refugee; their mourning of displacement is eased by welcoming them as our sisters and brother with hope for a future.

Mercies are new each morning when we see the marginalized who are stripped of their identity and resources and we clothe them with God-given dignity.

When illness strikes our children and our elderly, they see the heart of God pouring out hope through the genuine care of physicians, family, and friends alike.

Those who are incarcerated experience what is essential to human life through visits with cookies and hearing someone call them by name instead of a number (Mathew 25: 34-36; Matthew 5: 3-9).

Give us this day our daily bread. Scripture reveals a hidden truth that captivates my heart and I hope it captivates yours too: the bread of life is received through the gift of relationships with God and one another.

These relationships are essential for all human life to flourish in God’s kingdom. God created us with this holy tethering to remind us that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.

A few years ago, research was published that a giving attitude is shaped not just by faith, but also by our olfactory nerves. Would you believe that the smell of bread triggers a positive mood that leads to a greater unconditional concern for the welfare of others?

That is certainly a new motivation to ask God for a portion of bread every day….to let the smell of grace fill your nostrils, your lungs, and every fiber of your being to remember that you and I are blessed to be a blessing.

God holds us accountable to share the gifts of grace. Remember God’s unconditional love revealed in Jesus Christ is the greatest treasure we will ever behold. We cannot earn this treasure. We only receive it as a gift and this gift is only God’s to give.

Jesus is the bread of life – broken for the sake of reconciling our relationships with God and one another.

Give us this day our daily bread so that we may generously give evidence of God’s coming kingdom.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] John Calvin, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volume 2” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Reissued in 2006), pp. 908 – 909.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 157 (originally published in German in 1937).

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Lord's Prayer: Your Kingdom Come

“The Lord’s Prayer: Your Kingdom Come”
A Lenten Sermon Series 2/6
Matthew 6: 9-10
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2018

‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
- Mathew 6: 9-10

Last week we began to dive into the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus begins teaching his disciples how to pray with a sense of child-like wonder for who God is. The gift of Jesus’ prayer nurtures tender relationships with God and one another.

Jesus teaches us that our praise of God’s faithfulness moves us to pray with a growing trust – a bold trust – of God’s kingdom that is present and is still yet to come.

Matthew’s Gospel says that God’s kingdom has already come through the birth of Jesus Christ, which Isaiah prophesied: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’” (Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14). Jesus was the promised Son who would come from the house of King David to establish God’s eternal kingdom. God told David, “I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me” (2 Samuel 7: 12-14).

Our Savior is the ruler of God’s kingdom; a ruler who is like none other – One who is only armed with the strength of God’s love to shepherd God’s people (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5: 2, 4). Christ’s humble obedience to God led him to die on the cross to demonstrate the fullness of God’s unconditional love. At Jesus’ last breath, God’s love was let loose into the world when the temple curtain tore in half (Matthew 27:51). Nothing can or will ever separate us from God’s love in Christ (Romans 8:35).

Risen to new life, Jesus claimed all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus called for the body of Christ to participate in God’s kingdom of radical love by making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28: 18-20).

We follow Jesus’ instructions with a healthy sense of humility, grounded in God’s gracious gift of relationships. As we follow Jesus, our Lord teaches us what to be in prayer for – to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

When we look at the world today we have a hard time seeing evidence of God’s kingdom with human eyes.

We see suffering that cannot be explained.
Violence casts the shadow of death and steals the promising future of young lives.
Poverty and homelessness persist. Children have big scars and deep wounds from being bullied in school.
Institutions chose to hide scandals of abuse instead of prioritizing justice and healing for victims.
The conversations in our households are never ending about what is wrong with the world.

And yet we are not called to be people of despair (which is the opposite of hope). We are called to pray with bold hope even in the face of great impossibility.

First and foremost, to pray for God’s kingdom reaffirms that God can do all things, no purpose of God can be thwarted; the Lord’s word shall not return empty for it shall accomplish Gods purposes (Job 42:2; Isaiah 14:27; Isaiah 55:11). This is the good news of God’s kingdom!

Secondly, to pray for God’s kingdom to break in humbles us to confess our need for control and our proneness to rebel against God. Jesus leads us to surrender our human will and our need to control life’s outcomes with human reasoning.

You and I know how often we are tempted to say we know how to resolve the world’s problems better than God! And yet Christ reveals our need to trust God alone for Christ says, “Not my will, but your will – not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26: 39, 42).

Frederick Beuchner says, “We do well not to pray this prayer lightly. It takes guts to pray [The Lord’s Prayer] at all. We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden…To pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” is to say that if that were suddenly to happen, what would stand and what would fall? Which of our many precious visions of who God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark and which would turn out to be phony as three-dollar bills?” [1]

We must be very careful about claiming that we know the certainty of God’s will.

God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). “God makes foolish the wisdom of the world…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20c, 25). Discerning God’s will takes a posture of humility and an ongoing commitment for the Spirit to renew our minds to seek what is good, acceptable, and perfect in God’s eyes (Romans 12:2).

As Jesus tells us what to pray for, we must rely upon the whole of Scripture in order to recognize that God’s kingdom looks like.

God’s kingdom is marked by loving God and neighbor;
comforting God’s people;
caring for the widow and the orphan;
welcoming the stranger (refugee);
strengthening the powerless;
empowering the faint;
working for justice that brings right relationships and peace;
seeking the welfare of the city in which we live;
and prayer that puts faith into practice. (Deuteronomy 6:4, Matthew 22: 37-40, Mark 12: 35-37, Luke 20: 41-44; Romans 12:10, Romans 13:8; Exodus 22: 21-24, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19; Isaiah 40:1, 29; Isaiah 32:16-17; Jeremiah 4:1-2; Jeremiah 29:7; Philippians 4:4-9).

David Bosch says, “We are called, therefore, to be "kingdom people", not "church people". Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to work to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world.” [2]

And yet it is not the church doing the changing per se, but it is the church’s faithfulness to follow Jesus Christ.

If you read through Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of God is a treasure hidden within the ordinary places of life. It is here that Jesus Christ is shaping us to see God’s kingdom already present in his ministry, life, death, and resurrection.

The power of God’s kingdom takes root in our lived experiences to redeem and restore and renew us from the inside out. Just like seeds planted in good soil, yeast that is mixed into the flour, talents which are invested to yield growth - God’s kingdom is grace that is poured out beyond measure and hidden within our hearts to grow exponentially (Matthew 13:23; 13:33; 25: 20-21).

This amazing grace gives us courage and empowers us to follow Jesus’ example to work together in the fields of God’s generous love and to share it with others. Remember God’s treasure is meant to be freely given as Jesus Christ so freely gave it to us. The hope is that we may all behold God’s kingdom breaking in together.

No one knows the day God’s kingdom will come to completion. In the meantime, we are to be about the Lord’s business!

This second week of Lent be in prayer for the intersections of what breaks God’s heart and what is breaking yours. Ask Jesus Christ to help you trust that God’s love is already on the move to break into that brokenness to bring glory to God.

But here’s the tricky part if we are to really pray as Jesus taught…..

…..ask the Spirit to open our hearts to see the difference between God’s will and our will. The difference between seeking to be faithful (to God's will) and striving to be right (in our will) matters.

…..ask the Spirit to lead us to be kingdom builders. Later in the service we will sing these words about building God’s kingdom:

O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways /
Where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise.
O for a world where goods are shared and misery relieved /
Where truth is spoken, children spared, equality achieved.
O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace /
Where time and tears will be no more and all but love will cease.

May it be so for you and for me.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Frederick Beuchner, “Listening to Your Life” (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
[2] David Bosch, “Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission” (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999).
[3] Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), hymn number 372 “O for a World.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Lord's Prayer: Our Father in Heaven

“The Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in Heaven”
A Lenten Sermon Series 1/6
Matthew 6: 1-13
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2018

The season of Lent is spiritual journey. It is a time of 40 days and 6 Sundays to gaze inward upon the condition of our hearts. During our Ash Wednesday service on February 14, I asked each of us to consider what is blocking your spirit and mine from giving our whole heart to God?

It is a weighty question because as we look inward, we are also looking upward to the cross as God poured out his whole heart through Jesus’ compassionate ministry, death, and resurrection. What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

And so we are called to walk with Jesus as disciples on this journey to the cross. With each step we prayerfully reflect upon this gift of faith and Jesus’ costly grace.

Take in Jesus’ instruction to all those who gathered for the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: 1-13……

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Concerning Prayer

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Jesus teaches that this gift of faith has long been used for pretense. He cautions us to pay attention to practicing our faith as if it were a performance. When faith is more like an act then we are mere pretenders; our hearts are insincere, and our actions are hollow.

Pretense is something that blocks us from giving our whole heart to God. The other side of pretense is being too full…allowing busyness, schedules, and obligations to get in the way.

Henry Nouwen says, “So often we receive nothing from our spiritual practices because we have not created any open spaces in our lives. We are too full. We may want to receive, but we certainly do not want anything to be taken away.”[1]

Jesus teaches that this gift of faith is to be opened for genuine relationships with God and one another. It is a treasure that is to keep our hearts pliable like Playdo, teachable to keep learning God’s newest thing, and humble for no student is higher than their teacher. And yet it can be a scary thing for our hearts to be open because it requires us to let our guards down in order to be vulnerable – or be real with God.

Jesus teaches how we are to keep our faith honest, especially in this season of personal and communal reflection. We keep our faith honest through prayer. And if we are to keep our eyes on our Teacher and walk in the steps of our Savior then Jesus shows us to pray as he did.

We say the Lord’s prayer every week. And yet how often do we think about the full measure of the words we are saying? The Lord’s Prayer so easily becomes rote, but Jesus offers some bold words that connect us to God, connect us more deeply with ourselves, and to others, as well as opening our eyes daily to see God at work. These next 6 weeks of Lent we will break down the Lord’s Prayer.

I love how Jesus begins his prayer: “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9b). Four words that seem so simple but the way Jesus orders them makes all the difference.

Jesus’ first words spill out with a sense of child-like wonder for who God is. God is like a loving parent who is trustworthy, filled with goodness, and cares deeply for us. That intimacy is primary for Jesus. Jesus knew how deep and wide God’s love is for Creation and humanity since the beginning; Jesus is equal to God and also grew up in God’s wisdom from that babe lying in a manger as God’s only Son.

God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5). We are created to live in relationship with the One who knit us in our mothers’ womb, the One who is acquainted with all our ways, the One who leads us, and holds us fast (Psalm 139: 13, 3, 10).

And yet this divine and loving parent who will never fail us is the same God who stretched out the heavens like a blanket of stars and spins the whirling planets. As the Psalmist says, “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4).

We behold the sheer wonder of God’s love to name in this human experience and yet we are limited to fully comprehend the majesty and glory of God. Jesus’ prayer, “Our Father in heaven” captures the biblical imagination about the nearness and distance of God.

It is within these two extremes that our hearts open to praise God’s name. To praise God is to remember that God is set apart or “hallowed.” God is revealed through the Word made flesh and connects us to the story of God’s steadfast love; shapes our identities; and gives our lives purpose in a fearful and broken world.

Just as God put on human skin and became vulnerable in the person of Jesus Christ, God lives in solidarity with us still. God weeps with us in our sufferings and pain. God’s love pumps through the veins of our faith to be our brother’s keeper so that we might see God’s compassion in one another.

God is also revealed in the world around us: the sun rises and sets in a different brushstroke of God’s blazing colors daily; the constellations are like tracing God’s creative shapes in the night sky; and the eclipse we most recently saw was a glimpse of God’s almighty power to govern the heaven and earth.

To pray to our Father in heaven is to open ourselves to learn who God rightly is and to enjoy the mystery of God’s love forever. Jesus implies that when we pray using his words as our guide, God is continuing to bring about the good work in us that God began for the sake of God’s purposes – even in the most trying of times.

Praying to our Father in heaven is to affirm the importance of God’s relationship to tether us to God and one another. It is a treasure that we carry in our hearts to order our whole lives in thought, word, and deed so that we may give God the glory that God alone deserves.

I love the way 15 year-old Katrina Troyer shares her prayer of what God means to her:

You turned my darkness into light,
You made everything all right.
You picked me up when I was down,
You turned my life around.
If I didn’t have you, what would I be?
A blessing is what you are to me.
When I needed you the most, you were there,
Even if it seemed like you didn’t care.
When I didn’t think I could make it another day,
You chased all my doubts away.
If I didn’t have you, what would I be?
A treasure it what you are to me.

May we open our hearts to behold the treasure of God’s love. This treasure is not something we just store away and look at from time to time. But it is a treasure that is to be given away as Christ did so graciously for us.

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

Sources Referenced:

Artwork "Our Father," painted by Jen Norton

[1] Charles Ringma, “Dare to Journey with Henri Nouwen” (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2000), Reflection 13.
[2] “Listen for a Whisper: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections by Girls” (Winona: Saint Mary’s Press & Christian Bothers Publications, 2001), p. 66 What You Mean to Me, by Katrina Troyer.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon: The Gerasene Demoniac

Favorite Bible Stories: “The Gerasene Demoniac”
Mark 5: 1-20
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018

We conclude our sermon series today with one of my favorite Bible stories and one of the most thought provoking of Jesus’ ministry.

As the Gospel of Mark tells the story, Jesus and his disciples get in a boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee. Within just a few miles of water they leave the Jewish world and cross over to the Greco-Roman world. The boat landed on the shore of Gergesa (or the town of the Gerasenes); one of ten cities of the Decapolis.

Bible teacher Ray Van der Laan shares the Decapolis had a Greek Helenistic worldview. The first century Greco-Roman world was very human-centered. What mattered most in life were one’s accomplishments, social status, accumulation of material wealth, and appearances. As a result, anyone who did not measure up to these values was held in no account and pushed to the very out-skirts of town, marginalized by society.[1]

Back across the sea of Galilee in Capernaum, the Jewish worldview was that one’s value was found in belonging to God. Value is tethered to God’s covenant love through Abraham. However Jewish tradition was particular about this covenant status of belonging. What mattered most was one’s ability to be and remain spiritually clean according to the Law of Moses. To be “unclean” or to associate with one who was “unclean” meant that one’s spiritual wholeness or purity was compromised. Marginalization was the result there too.

As Jesus and his disciples set sail for the town of the Gerasenes, the pot gets stirred among these two very different worldviews.

Keep this in mind as we hear Mark’s story in chapter 5 verses 1-20…..

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when [Jesus] had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.

He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’

Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.

Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

As [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

He was known as the Gerasene Demoniac. The demons he wrestled had stolen his ability to accomplish anything in life. Whatever the chaos was that tore through him, it erased his former identity, it denied him the opportunity to be understood, it cut off his relationships with family and community, and it stripped away his integrity. The Greco-Roman world taught him shame; no one would ever love him for who he was. This worldview broke him down to dust and left him belonging to nothing more than hopeless despair.

It is no surprise that this ghost of a man ran to Jesus when the Rabbi got out of the boat. Even in Gentile territory, this man knew exactly who Jesus was. And as Jesus began to drive out the man’s chaos with authority to heal, the man begged Jesus not to torment him. He had experienced all the torment and division he could handle.

Our Savior saw a man who was more than the hopeless story that defined him. Our Savior saw a man who was in desperate need of God’s healing the jagged edges of his soul. What Jesus does is nothing less than amazing grace: he restored this man’s humanity. Jesus clothed this man in God-given dignity.

Jesus asked this man what his name is. Can you imagine not hearing your name called for a great length of time? That simple question created a space of fostering a relationship. It also opened a window of opportunity for the man to tell his story. Jesus’ empathy and compassion claimed this man in God’s never-ending love and restored this man’s identity as a beloved child of God.

Jesus freed him of the chaos, pain and isolation that once defined his life. This man’s new life was now filled with purpose for he was sent to go back home and tell his story. Jesus reconciled this man from the inside out and re-familied him to the ones who had known this man as a son, a brother, and a friend.

And yet this man, now healed and made whole, still felt the weight of human judgment. He feared no one would see him as Jesus saw him. It is in this moment that Jesus reinterprets two colliding worldviews.

Jesus’ actions confronted the Greco-Roman worldview. Jesus’ compassion and healing proclaimed God’s truth that everyone is a child of God, worthy of love and belonging. The source of this core truth is that we are all created in God’s image. The Gerasenes were so offended and threatened that they told Jesus to leave the neighborhood.

Jesus’ actions reinterpreted the Jewish worldview too. Jesus revealed God is willing to bend the rules of tradition for the sake of reconciling all humanity and creation back to himself. God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34).

The disciples were amazed and more than likely shocked. They sat in that boat as this all played out. I can imagine their jaws dropped as their Rabbi did God’s work in forbidden places according to tradition.

The disciples would continue to learn that following Jesus is risky business. You have to get out of your comfort zone to be about the Lord’s work of breaking down barriers to God’s freedom. At the end of the day, the only thing that counts is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).

Mark’s story haunts me with the stark contrasts in the ways humanity is viewed by God and society. The Gospel says that no one too far beyond God’s grace.

I want for you to think about the children, individuals, and groups whom society says have no value today. Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Now try to see the ones whom society holds of no account through the eyes of Jesus Christ. Jesus not only draws near to those whom society casts out, but he lived and died in compete solidarity with the marginalized and all humanity.

Jesus too was judged by society as having no value. The Greco-Roman society and the Pharisaic tradition saw his only accomplishment as stirring up trouble. Jesus was stripped of his God-given dignity and was held of no account. He hung on the cross to be publicly humiliated and to die as a criminal. And yet it was in the tomb that God lifted up a beacon of hope that shined the light of new life in the darkness. That light still shines into the darkest parts of humanity; a darkness that will never overcome the light of Jesus Christ.

God does his best work among the most disparaging places of life. The fullness of Jesus Christ and the power of Holy Spirit reveal God does this for the sake of reconnecting us - re-familying us - back to God and to one another. We do not belong to ourselves but to God alone and we are our brother’s keeper.

We still live in that first century mindset where a person’s worth and belonging are defined according to human standards - accomplishments, social status, possessions, and appearance.

In a time of great division, it is imperative for the greater Church to reclaim Jesus’ examples of empathy and compassion. These virtues are central to the integrity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Empathy and compassion always begin with our perceptions. It starts as an inside job and first begins with the self. Our capacity to learn empathy starts within our first year of life as an infant. This potential is shaped by our home values, community of faith, and environment.

The first step is a humbling one. It is learning to articulate our feelings. As we grow older it is remembering the human heart is a roller coaster of emotions and emotional needs. In our moments of feeling lost and misunderstood, we are found by Jesus Christ. We all share a longing to be unconditionally loved and freed from our inner and external chaos. What an incredible moment to feel safely embraced and understood by the heart of our Creator! You and I are here today because we identify with the mystery of God’s grace.

The second step is no less humbling. It is to see through God’s truth that our marginalized sisters and brothers are the same kind of different as you and me. When we affirm our shared universal longing to be loved, it yields a deepening conviction that all have intrinsic value because all are made in the image of God. We do not earn our worth, rather it is God given.

This gives us courage to be empathetic towards others – to get out of the boat and commit to the Lord’s work of restoring God-given dignity to our sisters and brothers. The Spirit nudges us to draw near to those who are different and those who are on the margins and to be a beacon of light.

Empathy is a grace-filled space of human connection. Empathy requires us to seek to understand first so that we may come alongside another with compassion (willingness to suffer with another). These virtues are the ties that bind us together in Christian love. The only thing that counts is faith working in love.

What might the gospel look like in your life and mine if we strive to see through Jesus’ lenses of empathy and compassion? This question matters because if we call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ then we are to be agents of God’s compassion. The Spirit is on the move to continue teaching us what we have learned and seen and heard in our Rabbi and Savior.

May we work for justice that heals and seek peace that reconnects us to God and one another in our homes, schools, community, nation, and world.

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

Sources Referenced:

[1] Ray Vaner Laan “The Mission of Jesus: 5 Lessons on Triumph of God’s Kingdom in a World of Chaos” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), lesson 2 DVD, “Decapolis: The Other Side – Jesus and the Man from the Tombs”.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sermon: You Give Them Something to Eat!

Favorite Bible Stories: “You Give Them Something to Eat”
Luke 1:37; 9: 10-17
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
February 4, 2018

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand people is a favorite story among this congregation.

As Tony shared in his children’s sermon, Jesus gave his followers strength that they were learning how to live into.

This truth is important for Luke’s Gospel. He begins chapter nine stating that Jesus gave the twelve disciples power and authority and Jesus sent them to use this God-given strength to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (Luke 9:1-2).

Keeping that in mind, hear the rest of Luke’s story (Luke 9: 10-17) with fresh spiritual eyes….

On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.

When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’

But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’

They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men.

And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down.

And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

Luke says because the disciples have been sent with God’s power to join Christ’s ministry they are now considered apostles – the sent ones. The marching orders which Jesus gave the apostles are based on Jesus’ servant leadership. Jesus did not ask them to do anything that he was not already doing. According to Luke, Jesus was sent by God for the purpose of proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).

According to Luke, the kingdom of God creates life-giving reversals:

God’s kingdom lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful (Luke 1:52; 18:14; 18:17; 21:3-4);

provides abundance in the midst of the world’s scarcity (Luke 1:53; 11:3; 12:28: 13:19);

reveals merciful love in the midst of fear (Luke 1:54; 6:27-28; 10: 25-37; 23:44-46);

creates the power of presence in the midst of distraction and loneliness (Luke 10:41-42; 13:21);

brings healing and wholeness in the face of illness and brokenness (Luke 4: 31-35; 4:39; 5:13; 5:24; 6:8,10; 6:18; 7: 9-10; 7:14; 9:42; 13:13; 14:4; 18:42; 24:1-12);

accomplishes justice that redeems systemic oppression (Luke 1:51; 2:34; 3:5; 6: 20-26; 14:13-14; 14: 21; 18:5-8; Acts 13:17);

proclaims the gift of salvation to deliver God’s people (Luke 3:6; 15:7; 15:10; 15:22-24; 22:19-20; 23:43; 24:26-27, 30-32; 24:45-49).

Jesus loved talking with others about the truths of God’s kingdom. The crowds were drawn to Jesus’s presence and the picture his words painted. They had an insatiable hunger and thirst for God’s abundant presence that redefined human existence. God’s kingdom always provides the MORE we are looking for.

And yet the ones who Jesus sent to reveal the hopes of kingdom living (the apostles) were the ones who told Jesus to send the crowd away. This large gathering was in a deserted place – a place of scarcity. And the “sent ones” told Jesus to send the crowd away to find their own provisions in the midst of physical lack. Doesn’t this sound ironic to you?

Maybe the twelve saw an impossible situation confronting them. Maybe they felt confident helping a few people at a time, but right now they worried and doubted their resources to live into their calling.

Days later Jesus would tell them, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear….Your Father knows what you need. Instead strive for his kingdom and these things will be given to you" (Luke 12: 22, 30-31).

But in this moment Jesus says, “You give them something to eat (Luke 9:13). And then Luke makes a point to state this is a teaching moment. Luke no longer calls the twelve “apostles” but now calls them “disciples,” – the ones who are to follow the Rabbi’s every move and learn to live into their strengths and calling.

How did Jesus show how to strive for the kingdom first? How did Jesus proclaim the kingdom to those 5,000 people and the disciples?

Jesus affirmed his complete dependence upon God and his trust in God’s provision. Jesus offered the resources which were given to him and prayed God would bless them to reveal God’s abundance. And Jesus gave the disciples the opportunity to extend visible signs of God’s invisible grace (Luke 9: 16).

God makes a way when there seems like no way. Nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37). As Tony shared in the children's sermon, God's favorite word is "impossible."

And yet just as Tony shared in his children’s sermon, our human tendency is to focus on what we are lacking. It is the narrative the world teaches. And it is discouraging to say the least. But remember the kingdom of God has great power to reverse the ditches of life.

Some family sized churches feel stuck in the ditch, discouraged when they compare their communal resources to larger churches. It is like comparing a 90 member church to a large church with thousands of members. The smaller church often feels like its resources are a few loaves and fish while the big church budget overflows with potential.

But let me tell you – never underestimate the ministry of a small church! My spirit is overwhelmed by your conviction of God’s provision and your reliance upon the Lord.

This church is open to listen for opportunities to follow Jesus’ command, “You give them something to eat!” “You give them something that reveals the kingdom of God!”

You are following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is near through our partnership with HOPE Food Pantry. Our food donations join forces in a communal effort to feed nearly 5,000 individual families annually who are in need here in Lancaster.

You are following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is near with our noisy offerings for Dimes for Hunger. In Lancaster alone, we are helping to feed our elderly homebound neighbors with Meals on Wheels, feed homeless guests at the New Hope Soup Kitchen, and glean local produce for those in need.

You are following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is near with Thanksgiving baskets overflowing with all the special holiday trimmings and Christmas gifts for families who would otherwise wake up to nothing. These local families in Van Wyck see God’s unconditional love and abundant presence and celebrate the gifts of grace with new hope.

You are following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is near through our ecumenical ministry of Back to School Bash. So many here washed the feet of children whose feet were bruised and blackened from wearing shoes too small. You told the children the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and many of those children finished telling the story. You put new socks and shoes on over 800 children’s feet and they walked away knowing you love them for who they are and that God loves them too.

As followers of Jesus Christ, God is always presenting you and me with teaching moments. We are called to follow Jesus’ example of fully relying on God (FROG) and trusting in God’s provision.

We are to offer up the resources and strengths God has given us – no matter how small they might seem – and watch God do something amazing with them and through them! In doing so Jesus says that you and I are now the “sent ones” to give others something that reveals the kingdom of God is breaking in right here and right now!

May God’s Spirit continue to move among us to open our spiritual and physical eyes to see new opportunities to follow Jesus and proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal through the ministry of reconciliation.

May we jump in with all that we are and all that we have to join in God’s mission of transforming the world.

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon: Friends Who Will Carry You to Jesus

Favorite Bible Stories: “Friends Who Will Carry You to Jesus”
Mark 2: 1-12
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018

The story of the four friends who carry the paralytic to Jesus is another favorite story among this congregation. Our own Laura Clark says this story is church at its best!

Hear the story with fresh spiritual eyes according to Mark’s Gospel 2: 1-12…

When [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.

So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.

Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell this story, but Mark is the one who best captures what is profound about this story (Matthew 9: 1-8; Luke 5: 17-26).

Jesus is at home surrounded by people who are packed in like sardines. Imagine an ordinary day where this sanctuary, the fellowship hall, and the Vaughan Room are so full it is standing room only. Imagine the cars passing by and drivers wonder what in the world is going on at THAT church?!?! Imagine the capacity is so full it violates fire code and the Fire Department has to come to ensure our safety!

Mark says the folks who gathered in that house were hanging on Jesus’ every word. He was teaching the Scriptures and I’m sure he was connecting all the dots to apply God’s Word to real life. Can you just imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus? Can you hear yourself thinking about that one friend or family member who is not by your side in that moment and you say to yourself, “Man, so-and-so should really be here too!”

The four friends were thinking the same thing. They knew someone who needed to be at the feet of Jesus. The text does not reveal to us anything about their relationships to one another.

We only know four things: The four friends go above and beyond to carry this unnamed man to Jesus; paralysis created an inability for the man to act for himself; Jesus saw the four friend’s confidence in Jesus’ healing power and power to change one’s life; and all were amazed by the extraordinary grace of the four saints and Jesus which brought healing and wholeness to the man.

It is a powerful thing when we see ourselves in these Bible stories. God’s faithfulness continues to be at work in mysterious ways, especially through the actions of friends and strangers alike. A few of our church folk among us gave me permission to share their own stories with you.

When Vivian was thirty years old and living in Tennessee, a friend dragged her to a Bible study. At the time Vivian’s daughters were preschool age and you know it takes a lot of effort to go anywhere with little ones! The Bible study was not just down the street, it was twenty miles away and Vivian was not so sure about making the commitment. Nevertheless, she participated in that women’s study which was led by Kay Arthur. Vivian remembers how inspiring Kay’s leadership and teachings were. While Vivian had been a life-long Christian, she was amazed to learn about Jesus’ power revealed in his death and resurrection and the ways it completely changes our lives. Vivian’s friend carried her to Jesus in a profound way that continues to shape her faith today.

Our Tuesday Morning Women’s Bible Study Group tears open the roof on a regular basis as we dig into God’s Word with engaging discussions and sharing differing insights. Our time together gives Glenda pause as she sees this group raising the roof in prayer for family, friends, neighbors, the community, and the wider world. Being lifted in prayer sounds like an undramatic way to carry a friend to Jesus, but prayer is powerful beyond measure. Glenda has some wise insight: it's our everyday Christian friends who carry us through prayer to Jesus' feet for comfort, healing, and guidance. She thanks God every day for surrounding her with people who believe in the power of prayer and having the faith that our prayers will be answered.

Another member shared their story of the church at its best during a difficult season of life and faith. In very dark days of my own life, I was not able to get to Jesus on my own. I was paralyzed with grief and depression, unable to get up and walk. I felt like God had abandoned me. It was only through the love and support of my friends that I was able to get to Jesus. The love and acceptance of my church friends carried me and lowered me through the roof back into God's presence. This experience changed my life. I learned that my prayers, church attendance, and service were not transactions to receive God’s grace, but nurture my relationships with God and the community of faith.

These collective stories from our community of faith are inspiring. They also point to what is so profound about Mark’s telling of this story. The profound truth is that when we see the good news of Jesus Christ in action it is a picture of bearing up one another in unconditional love (Ephesians 4:2).

When we bear up one another it is not according to our own agendas, or to get any special recognition, or to have God’s grace credited to our faith account. To bear up one another in God’s unconditional love – to carry friends, neighbors, and even strangers to Jesus - is a gift and a responsibility as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is solely focused on uniting the community of faith so it may be built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22). Paul says Jesus Christ is the foundation of God’s household (Ephesians 2:20).

It is through Jesus Christ that the whole structure of God’s people is joined together as a community. At times Holy Spirit gently softens the rough places of our hearts and yet at other time tears open the rough places in order for us to see Jesus as the only One who can satisfy our spiritual needs (Ephesians 2: 21-22).

God’s love works through our family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers to gather us into the spiritual house that Jesus is building. Carol Johns says, God never loved me in such a way till He brought you to me and said, “BEHOLD A FRIEND!" And that is part of the gift.

We are led by God’s love with the help of others, as Carol so beautifully said, to sit at Jesus’ feet and our lives begin to change. Holy Spirit transforms us by the renewing of our hearts, minds, and strength (Romans 12:2). As we find God’s peace and experience the wholeness that only Jesus Christ can provide, then we behold the gift of grace and also the responsibility to respond to it in kind.

Paul says we are to “Lead a life worthy of the calling to follow Jesus Christ with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing up one another in love, and making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (God’s wholeness). That unity means that God’s love empowers us to practice community in authentic ways so that we may be a blessing to one another, to the community, and to the wider world.

This week I want you to prayerfully consider the ways God’s Spirit might be nudging you.

Who is God bringing to your mind in prayer? Who is God placing in your path that needs to get to Jesus?

May you and I continue striving to be a community of faith who is united to being transformed by God’s love, Jesus’ grace, and the Spirit’s embrace.

May we be known as friends who will carry others to Jesus.

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sermon: Let the Little Children Come

Favorite Bible Stories: “Let the Little Children Come”
Matthew 19: 13-15
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 21, 2018

I have been asking you to share your favorite Bible stories with me. One of the stories you lifted up is the story of Jesus welcoming the children from Matthew’s Gospel.

The camera lens of faith captures a tender moment that is not to be forgotten. Listen to the story according to Matthew with fresh spiritual eyes… Mathew 19: 13-15:

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story of a gentle Jesus. Throughout these gospels Jesus draws a crowd as the people continued to follow him. They gathered around Jesus like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). All three writers imply that mothers, fathers, and guardians were the ones bringing their children of all stages and ages to be blessed by the hands of the Son of God.

The people had heard Jesus’ powerful teachings and had seen unparalleled compassion in his eyes. Bringing their children was a beloved sign of trust in Jesus. These families wanted that holy connection to embrace and bless their children.

And just like that - this tender moment was interrupted. The disciples attempted to set a boundary around Jesus. Maybe they thought their Lord was doing important work. Maybe the disciples felt their Rabbi shouldn’t be bothered by the unpredictability of children – you know the tantrums, the questions, the interruptions. Maybe the disciples had good intentions to protect Jesus’s time and personal space, to preserve it, and keep it reverent.

And yet once again Jesus breaks down the barriers that we humans build up. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

Those words speak the truth in love to the disciples and anyone with ears to hear. Those words call to mind an important truth about the ancient paths of faith tradition.

The Jewish faith tradition was and is a communal one. It claims that children have a treasured place of belonging in the family of faith. Children are marked with the sign of God’s covenant love (circumcision) from infancy at 8 days of age without exception (Genesis 17: 9-13).

A child’s life is to be interwoven in the fabric of covenant strength. The needle of faith weaves and tethers that fabric by intricate connections between God and intergenerational relationships. The fabric is made strong by a love that acknowledges the Lord as God alone with all our hearts, souls, and might.

Faith matters because it shapes the way we see ourselves and the world. Faith is cultivated in every day conversations that intersects real life in the home and also with our steps to walk in Wisdom’s path. It is a heritage that God’s steadfast love has passed down throughout every generation (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

The Reformed faith tradition is rooted in the Old Testament tradition in Scripture. We mark infants and children with the sign of God’s covenant love in the Sacrament of Baptism. A child’s life is claimed as a beloved child of God, embraced in the grace of Jesus Christ, and tethered into the great family of faith by Holy Spirit. The Sacrament recognizes it takes a village to raise a child and root them in the wonders of God’s love.

And as this holy Sacrament embraces children, families, and community alike, Jesus’ words remind us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Our children belong to the kingdom because you and I have something to learn about God’s love through the eyes of a child.

Just as the disciples were so easily caught up with adult matters, we can be too. There is a hazard with adulting too hard. It can extinguish one’s humility. It can hinder one’s ability to live in the moment. It can snuff out one’s playfulness, curiosity, and wonder. Jesus teaches us adults that children hold the keys to kingdom living.

Michael B. was one of the cutest four-year olds I had ever met. He had the face of a cherub, a smile that melted your heart, and an honesty that oftentimes left me speechless. One Wednesday afternoon his grandmother brought Michael B. and his siblings to church. I opened the door to help the kids get out of the car. And I said, “Michael B., did you have a good day at preschool?” And with a big mischievous grin, Michael B. looked at me and said, “Yeah! I didn’t hit anybody today!”

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to humble ones such as these.

The kids gathered around my clergy colleague for the children’s sermon. The message was to think about what God is calling us to do. All of the children had such good answers: “Be nice;” “Be kind;” “Be obedient.” And then little Henry buried his face in his father’s robe muffling his answer. The pastor looked down at his son and said, “Yes, Henry, God IS calling you to poop on the potty.” And little Henry just looked out at his church family and says, “But I not gonna do it.” The church broke out in hilarity.

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for he kingdom of God belongs to those who live in the moment.

Two children were asked to help lead worship as acolytes to light the candles on the Communion Table and bring the light of Christ into God’s house. Those kiddos just so happened to be wearing an Native American headdress and a princess dress respectively. While some parents would see this as a stumbling block to church tradition, these children’s parents saw an opportunity to foster a child’s energy, imagination, and love. And this pastor is incredibly grateful for a church who values creativity.

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are playful.

The youth gathered regularly for games, Bible study, and serving the community. As they grew in their faith, they also sought answers to hard questions. Paul began to withdraw from the group as he began to question who God is and what faith means. It was scary for his parents to see Paul holding this gift of faith and stretching it to the limits. Sometimes faith seems so fragile that we might believe questioning it is the wrong thing to do. But questions remind us that it takes a village to affirm that we are not alone in our questions and doubts. It is part of wearing the thin skin of humanity.

Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to those who are curious and questioning.

Copper was a sophomore in high school. While he was shy he also did not know a stranger. He loved to laugh. He tried to do his best in school. He had a passion for soccer. He also had a spiritual gift for leadership. Cooper led devotions and prayer at youth retreats. He applied to serve on the Youth Council to help plan regional youth events. And the Church Officer Nominating Committee prayerfully invited Cooper to serve on session as a youth elder. I was delighted to hear his answer was yes. In that three year commitment many saw the Spirit at work through Cooper. He inspired the session and church to see children and youth not solely as the future but for the valuable contributions they share among us today.

Let the children and youth come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to ones who have a sense of wonder.

Today three families are bringing their children to be blessed by our gentle Jesus and this congregation. Mia Edwards, Carson Helms, and Ashley Overstreet are preparing to begin the journey of Confirmation this coming weekend. From January through May they will gather with other youth in our Presbytery to hold, question, and stretch this gift of faith.

Mia, Carson, and Ashley – I want you to know that you will step into a safe space that promises to hold future friendships among your peers. You are already fully embraced by the great family of faith right here at Van Wyck Presbyterian, the connective relationships among our Presbyterian churches, and all our spiritual ancestors who have come before us. And as you each grow deeper roots of faith, God has already given you amazing gifts to share among all God’s people.

My greatest prayer and deepest hope is that you may begin to unravel the mysteries of God’s amazing love for you, creation, and the wider world; to know that Jesus Christ welcomes you just as you are; and to trust that the Holy Spirit will give you the words to articulate your faith and help you discover how to use your unique gifts to make this world a better place.

The kingdom of God belongs to you and we cannot wait to see it through your eyes!

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

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon: The Lord Will Fight for You

Favorite Bible Stories: “The Lord Will Fight for You”
Exodus 14: 1-25
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
January 14, 2018

Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall camp opposite it, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’

But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!

But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.’

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’
- Exodus 14: 1-25

Over the course of our lifetimes, Scripture comes alive to each of us. God's Word often speaks to us in surprising ways to bring comfort in distressing times, to deepen the roots of our faith, and to prune those roots by challenging us.

No matter how young or old we are, when we learn about the B-I-B-L-E, we all come to hold a favorite biblical passage that becomes meaningful. For in the story God speaks directly into our hearts. Therefore, Scripture becomes quite personal to us as God rewrites our own personal and communal stories. And because of this deepening relationship with the Author of our lives, we are forever changed by God’s Word in some small or big way.

One of the most important stories in Scripture, and also one of my personal favorites, is the story of God parting the Red Sea. The familiarity of the story can cause our spiritual eyes to focus on the sheer wonder of God separating this massive body of water.

But there is more to the story that holds implications for our trust in God’s power and our faithful response to it.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians clung to Israel like baggage they could not rid themselves of. Whatever direction that God’s people looked they heard that seductive voice of fear, “The wilderness has closed in on you. This is as good as it gets. There is no way out.”

You and I know the power of that voice and how heavy that baggage gets. It made God’s people complacent to believe that nothing would ever change their circumstances. To imagine anything other than this baggage was too, too hard.

Complacency gets comfortable because it confines us to a particular lot in life. Complacency defines us in underwhelming ways. It ties our hands behind our backs. Complacency strives to hold us down in the darkness. It denies us the hope to spread our wings and rise up to the light.

But hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:24b-25).

I love this story because Moses sees all this in real time and he knows what time it is. It is time for Moses to tell his truth.

Moses was once in the same boat. His own complacency with self-doubt, fear, and feeling inadequate kept him from rising up to God’s call. And yet time and again Moses saw the surprise of God’s power and deliverance in his own life and in the lives of God’s people.

In a climactic moment of leadership, Moses says: Do not fall prey to fear and complacency. Stand firm in full reliance upon God. He is the stable center of your hope. Give all your attention to the hope that God saves. Your baggage is heavy and exhausting but prepare yourself - you will never carry it again. I know this is not logical but trust that the Lord will accomplish this today. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still (Exodus 14:13-15).

Joan Chittister is an author and speaker on the spiritual life and was a former Benedictine nun. She says,

“There are some things in life that cannot be avoided: death, illness, change, personal expectations. What each of them does to us depends a great deal on the way we have allowed ourselves to deal with lesser things. The purpose of stability [Moses’ instruction to be still] is to center us in something greater than ourselves so that nothing lesser than ourselves can possibly sweep us away.

Stability says that where I am [that] is where God is for me. More than that, stability teaches that whatever the depth of difficulties around me, I can, if I will simply stay still enough of heart, find God there in the midst of them.”

God is acquainted with all our ways and hardships. God is faithful and gives us the assurance of his presence. The Lord goes before us and is our rear guard to shine the light into the darkness. If God is for us who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).

God will fight for us because the Lord our God is with us and he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in us, he will quiet us in his love, he will rejoice over us with a song of deliverance (Zephaniah 3:17).

God always makes a way forward when there seems like no way. Faith allows us to wait for God’s plan and God’s timing to intersect with great anticipation. We do not wait passively of helplessly. We wait with a prayerful eagerness that the Lord will never leave us where God found us.

And then we can be still no longer. God worked through Moses to part the Red Sea but notice that God did not carry the Israelites across the dry land. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to go forward!” (Exodus 14:15).

God prepared the path of deliverance, but the people had to respond in faith by taking the next step to experience God’s freedom. How can we possibly look forward into God’s future if our eyes are fixed on the past that lies behind us? Our attention is divided if we do that.

Years ago, Jake Clark met Pastor Lorenzo on a mission trip to Costa Rica. Pastor Lorenzo was a man you can not forget; he always had a big smile on his face and a joyful presence. One day, Jake just happened to share a story about prison ministry with Pastor Lorenzo. In those moments God led Pastor Lorenzo to tell his story of God’s faithfulness.

As a child Lorenzo never knew his father. Lorenzo’s young mother gave him away at birth. I imagine much of his life story was narrated by the voice of abandonment. Lorenzo was adopted and raised by a farming couple. He was not exposed to the blessings of faith community, but he was exposed to hard labor, violent beatings and verbal abuse. At the age of 15 he stole money from his parents and ran away. Daily survival on the street came from fighting for pay.

Lorenzo married and his wife bore children. The cycle continued as Lorenzo unleashed his anger on his wife and children. At the age of 25 Lorenzo was arrested for stealing and left to serve a prison sentence. He wandered aimlessly in a wilderness that was closing in on him. There seemed to be no hope to rise up from the darkness into the light. But hope that is seen is not hope, is it?

Prison was a stable center for Lorenzo; it forced him to be still. And in the stillness of a prison cell someone shared the good news of God’s deliverance with him. Lorenzo put his trust in God’s steadfast love, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the deep embrace of Holy Spirit and it changed his life.

When Lorenzo served his sentence and was released from prison, he had no idea what freedom might truly look like. Nor did he have any expectation that his wife and children would forgive him. The only thing Lorenzo knew was that he was a different man. But God made a way forward when there seemed like no way. God’s plan and timing intersected before Lorenzo and God’s Spirit nudged him to take the first step into God’s freedom.

In doing so, Lorenzo’s family forgave him. Surely God went ahead of them and was their rear guard because Lorenzo and his family were able to make peace with the past and reach forward into the promises of new life. The Lord used Lorenzo’s wilderness and baggage to glorify God; the Spirit called Lorenzo to serve God and God’s people as a pastor. God rewrote Lorenzo’s story of abandonment and pain with the finger of God’s grace.

Today Lorenzo’s story is knowing he is loved beyond measure and has a greater purpose in life within the heart of God. That story brings a smile and abiding joy for he is deeply aware of the power of God’s grace. And now Pastor Lorenzo helps others to see God’s deliverance as a new reality.

Friend, how long have you felt that you are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness? I know how heavy that baggage can become; the baggage of broken relationships, past regrets, deep doubts, and hard decisions in the mix of daunting uncertainty. I know how seductive the voice of complacency can be; it dulls our hearts to believe this is as good as it’s going to get.

Do not be afraid. Stand firm by fully relying on God. Give all your attention to the truth that God saves. Do not the let the past divide your attention.

God delivered us once through Jesus’ death and resurrection and God will deliver us again and again from anything that stands in the way of experiencing Christ’s promises of freedom and new life. Believe against all odds that the Lord will deliver you and then live into God’s reality.

The Lord will fight for you. Be still in God’s strength only waiting to hear him say, “Rise up and go forward.”

May it be so for you and for me. In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.