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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

2009-06-07 John 03 01-17

2009-06-07 John 03 01-17
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Isaiah had a vision of angels swirling around his head. Flaming coals being placed on his tongue. Is it torture, or is it a gift? It's God, who places a word within Isaiah's mouth, a word he can't get rid of, no matter how many times he speaks it. It sticks to his tongue and drags him into humiliating, insane contortions. He walks naked and barefoot through the city for three years. Did he want this gift, this torment, this word? Why would anyone want to respond to a God of flying dragons and hot coals, "Here I am, Lord. Send me!"? We sing the hymn, "Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night." We make it sound as though God floats in on a spring breeze through an open window. Heaven and earth and terrifying creatures with six wings and four heads spin around Isaiah in a dizzying vertigo of prophesy. This is no word softly calling in the night; it's a word that burns the soul. It's the word to tell the people that even though God will speak, their ears won't hear. God will deafen them. Tell the people that even though God will act, they won't see it. God will blind them. Even though God touches their hearts, they will remain numb. God is going to punish the people not by withholding his voice, but by withholding their willingness to hear, to see, and to believe. God will call in the night. And no one will hear. No one. Except Isaiah. Isaiah will hear. And the tolling bell of God's voice will ring without ceasing in his head. Isaiah alone. How long will Isaiah be afflicted with God's word?
    "Until the cities lie ruined
       and without inhabitant,
       until the houses are left deserted
       and the fields ruined and ravaged..."
God has cut open Isaiah's heart, and placed inside it a dark, dark secret. Isaiah's nation, his homeland, the people he loves, will be erased. The message of destruction burns like a coal on his mouth. It burns like a sterilizing flame on a needle. It burns. It hurts. But there is more. In the pain, the word purifies. This is what God is after. The message will hurt the people. But in the end something will emerge. Something new. Something fresh. Something hopeful. God may lay waste the land, but in the end, in the end only God and Isaiah can foresee, the smoldering stumps of the great cedars of Lebanon will sprout again. But not for a long, long time. And so Isaiah will speak hope. Someday. God will speak hope. Someday. But not for a long, long time.

The God of Isaiah was also the God of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees. Nicodemus, a member of the ruling council. Nicodemus, an important man. Nicodemus knew the God of Isaiah. He was born into a people who were hand-picked by God. Nicodemus knew that messengers of God are terrible to behold. Angels of fire and doom. Nicodemus knows this. But he also knows something else.

The Bible says,
"He came to Jesus
by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who
has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from
the presence of God.’"

Nicodemus knows the awesome power of God. But Nicodemus also knows Jesus must be of God. Or else he couldn't do the things that he does. Nicodemus knows Jesus must be a messenger of God. But Jesus didn't preach doom and destruction. Jesus didn't fly with six wings and four heads. Jesus didn't prophesy that peoples' hearts would be hardened and the wrath of God was upon them. Jesus was different. After generations of children born in the shadow of one kind of message, Jesus brings a new message. Jesus brings hope. Not a distant hope. But a very present hope in times of trouble. It's not as if Nicodemus doesn't want to get it. But everything in his person, his tradition, his upbringing tells him no.

Jesus says to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
Nicodemus says to him, ‘How can anyone be born after
having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb
and be born?’
Jesus answers, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.'
Nicodemus says to him, ‘How can these things be?’

How are you like Nicodemus? What part of you finds it easier to believe prophets of doom than angels of hope? When you're handed bad news, what part of you says, "Here I am. Send me." When you're handed miraculously good news, what part of you says, "But how can this be?" A lot of people with darn good lives spend their days waiting for the next shoe to fall. A lot of people hear good news is coming and think, "Maybe. But not for a long, long time." I know I want to think I wouldn't be as thick and pessimistic as Nicodemus if Jesus walked up to me with good news. But I also know the saying that if something sounds too good to be true... what is it? (It probably is.)

It takes us a long time to change our minds. We don't like change. Change freaks people out. ("A new order of worship. Aaaugggh!") A lot of people would rather stay with the news they already know (even if it's bad) than hear the good news that requires a change. Change is so hard, it's almost like you'd be better off starting over from scratch. It's like it'd be easier to be... born again. In order for Nicodemus to take on the whole God of Jesus, he has to give up the partial God of Isaiah. It's like the Apostle Paul says, "Now I know in part, then I shall know fully." What part of God have you latched onto? What part of God has been handed down to you? I guarantee you whatever you think you know about God, it's not everything. In order to know the full God of Jesus Christ, you have to be willing to give up the partial God you've been handed. How do you do that? It would almost be easier to enter a second time into your mother's womb and be born again.

For a lot of us, salvation takes a long time. We spend a lot of time
laboring in that second birth. Jesus chose the metaphor of birth to
describe salvation. I was present when our two children were born.
Quick and painless wouldn't be how I'd describe the process. When Jesus came and said, "Be born again," Nicodemus didn't immediately stand up and shout, "Here I am, Lord! Send me!." But make no mistake, Nicodemus did believe. You may have had a dramatic, born again conversion where one minute you were doing your normal do's and the next minute you dropped everything and followed no one else but Jesus. Praise God if that's you. But for every Isaiah who accepts 100% and is reborn in the blink of an eye, there are hundreds more Nicodemuses. Good people. Believing people. Who know Jesus has to be of God, but for the life of them can't figure out how these things can be. If you're a Nicodemus, stop wandering around after midnight. Rest a little more assured. It's not your salvation. It's God's salvation. And sometimes God's salvation takes a long, long time. The cedars will sprout again. God will speak hope again. You will be born again. Even if it takes a long, long time.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

2009-05-31 Pentecost

2009-05-31 Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21

If you're from East Tennessee, or West Virginia (like I am), or anywhere else in Appalachia, you've probably heard about Pentcostal Churches all your life.
You may have even belonged to one, or worshiped in one.
At the Pentecostal church, you may have been overtaken by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and shouted, whooped, hiccuped, danced or rolled down the aisle.
But probably not, which is why you're here - and not there.
Pentacostals are are blessed with the gift of being able to tune in to the Holy Spirit's frequency.
When we Presbyterians, on the other hand, are overtaken with ecstatic spiritual experiences it looks like this.
Want to see it again?
We Presbyterians celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit, for sure.
But our celebrations are, shall we say, more muted.
But we who do things so decently and in order need the Pentecostals.
God needs the Pentecostals to remind us - to remind all the world - that God does things that aren't in the bulletin.

Pentecost literally means, "The fiftieth day." In the Christian church, Pentecost is a holiday to remember that 50 days after Easter - and you can count them on the calendar when you go home - 50 days after Easter, God gave the church the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So fifty days after Easter, the disciples are all in a room together.
Suddenly the sound like a violent wind comes from heaven and blows through the room like a hurricane.
Then, they have a simultaneous vision.
What seem to be like tongues of fire separate and came to rest on each of them.
Then, they begin to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enables them.
Did they babble in incomprehensible stutters and squeals?
We know because people passing by began to hear.
Parthians, Medes and Elamites. Mesopotamians, Judeans and Cappadocians.
(It's a busy street.)
Libyans, Arabs and Cretans.
Now it's time for the Cretans, Cappadocians, and Cyrenians to be amazed, to have their belief and disbelief crash together over what the disciples are doing.
They're utterly amazed, the Bible says.
They say, “Are not all of these Galileans?
(Subtext: “They ain't usually that bright in Galilee county.”)
Then how is it we all hear their preaching, in our native tongues?”
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Maybe the greatest gift of Pentecost isn't the gift of being able to speak in different languages.
Maybe the greatest gift of Pentecost isn't the gift the disciples received.
Maybe the greatest gift of Pentecost is the gift the WORLD received -- the gift of being able to hear the gospel in their own words.
The greatest gift of Pentecost is translation.
Translation of the word of Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior into all the languages of the world.
The disciples received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and from the Holy Spirit they received the gift of speaking in the native languages of the world.
But here's the twist.
It doesn't matter if you speak one language, two languages, or a hundred languages if there's no one to hear you.
It doesn't matter if the Holy Spirit, it doesn't matter if Jesus Christ himself teaches you fluency in a hundred languages if there's no one around to speak to.
Greater than all the other gifts of Pentecost to the disciples is the gift of the Holy Spirit to the people who heard, and understood their preaching.
All those Cretans and Cappadocians had their receivers turned on, and they picked up the signal of the Holy Spirit.
And what did they do?
They did exactly what we'd expect them to do.
They went, “What are we supposed to do with this? What does this mean?”
Just as the disciples were amazed when they saw Jesus ascending into heaven, so the people are amazed to hear about it.
The people receive the signal.
And their bandwidths just explode.

You believe in Jesus Christ. (You do believe in Jesus Christ, right?) That belief should mean the world to you.
But your belief should have meaning to the world, too.
The gift of Pentecost, the gift of translation of belief from one person to another, means that not only do you receive the gifts of God, but that you should be a transmitter of gifts to other receivers.
It's the gift that keeps on giving.
Because it's the gift of translation.
You receive the Spirit in order to share the Spirit.
That's the way the Spirit works.
As you translate your faith into words and actions you help others receive what otherwise they might never hear.
When you receive the Holy Spirit, it's not yours to keep;
it's your to share, and share again, and keep sharing, even though the rest of the world might think you're crazy, as they did the disciples.

I'm pretty sure that tongues of fire have never landed on your head.
But the gift of the Holy Spirit has.
You may not know it; you may not know what to do with it, but the gift of the Holy Spirit rests every bit as much upon you as it did the first disciples the first Pentecost Sunday.
All they did was open their mouths, and the Holy Spirit made them understood.

Anyone ever had trouble talking about their faith?
Any of you ever felt nervous or uncomfortable telling someone about what you believe?
You're worried because you don't want to sound like a... Pentecostal... or something.
The gift of the Spirit says you don't have to worry.
Just open your mouth and talk.
You may think you're babbling.
But the Spirit will do the translating.

Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And pass it on.