“Why do we always doubt?”

John 20:19-31, April 11th, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard

Read the Statement of Faith


“Hear now these words as recorded in the gospel according to John, chapter twenty, verses nineteen thru thirty-one.”

John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

“Having heard with your own ears the testimonial as to what occurred that day, in the Upper Room, do you have any doubts?”

“Why do we always doubt?”

Doubts are plentiful and we all have them!  I have one right now and so do you!  Well, I was filled with doubt until I said a prayer and asked God to be with me, be with us this morning; so now, I am hopeful, and with God’s help, I can express the message of our scripture lesson with you – in a meaningful way.  By the way, have you invited God to join you in this time of worship?  If you forgot, it is OK, the Spirit of God can show up unexpectantly at any time.  Apparently, this is what happened in our scripture lesson this morning.  There they were, all locked up, in the upper room, filled with fear and then “suddenly” there was Jesus standing among them offering them a blessing!  Now tell me you have never had any doubts about the accuracy of this writing!?  A literalist would tell us “that’s the way it is written, therefore that is how it was!”  Really?  You do not have any questions about this?  Well, please do not fret over your answer.  They wrote this event down for all of us who have had doubts and perhaps some of us still have doubts.  Gosh, what is so shocking about having Jesus, who was executed just a few days before, buried in a tomb with a huge stone in front of the entrance, suddenly appearing in your midst behind closed doors!?

Perhaps some of you are thinking, “I told so and so that locking the doors was a waste of time!”  Or… “Really, so how did Jesus open a locked door anyhow?”  The scripture account does not say anyone opened a door and let Jesus come in.  Oh no!  They have him ‘appearing’ in their midst!  As I have reflected on this passage, over the years I have preached on this Doubting Thomas passage every Sunday after Easter for going on thirty years now, and I have some thoughts regarding this.  You see… as a student pastor the Senior pastor always took the Sunday after Easter off, so I started studying this scripture a long time ago.  Subsequently, I have come to desire a body – a body like the Risen Christ has in this passage.  Entering a room without opening the locked door.  Appearing in their midst.  This dialog sure has me thinking that this is a “Spiritually Induced Moment!”  Whatever truly happened, they wanted to be sure we heard the full account, cause, Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared, and he had his doubts after hearing their story!  Thomas wanted proof.  Many, a great many want proof!  The only proof many will get is in our faith, shared with integrity!    

It is amazing how this passage is still being played out everyday in our day to day lives!  Taking someone at their ‘word’ about an event… has become a forgotten art form!  Why, many of us do not believe what we see on a live video broadcast!   No, I am not naive, I do not believe everything I hear either.  Yet, we all need to trust in someone at some point.  Here we have an account that we believe was written by a follower of Jesus.  There are four separate gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  That is not counting the testimonials written for us within the Acts of the Apostles, which are contained in the book of Acts, which speak of these events as well.  Let us not forget all the letters in the New Testament, especially the ones which the Apostle Paul wrote.  But let us not stop there.  There are countless testimonies from all over the world which have been written down and shared from people that have felt, seen or heard the presence of God, the Living Spirit of Christ, touch them in some special way!  Can we really discount so many witnesses?  What about our own witness to the faithfulness of God in our journeys?  Tell others how trusting in God has changed your life.  It sure has made a difference in mine!  We can truly be changed when we are willing to trust that God will help us.  People are not interested in our sermonettes; they are interested in our experiences along the way.  They want to know where we get our strength and courage to face adversity!  They want a piece of the hope we offer!

It is sad, we know, that many, many, witnesses of real events are afraid to speak of it… because of the ramifications of telling the truth!  While studying for my ‘Masters of Divinity’ degree, we learned of the countless numbers of followers of Christ who were executed, in one way or another, because of their beliefs in the narratives we now find in the New Testament accounts.  And today – in current time – people all over the world, are being persecuted because they believe in the God of love and the Spirit of forgiveness; as-well-as the power of the teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry.  Even nonbelievers in Jesus’ divinity, scholarly men, and women, will testify to the wisdom of his teachings and of his prophetic instructions that have proven to be timeless.  With this said, why is it that so many are afraid to speak the truth, even when they see it with their own eyes?  Fear, fear is the answer.  It has been documented many times.  Witnesses to a crime who will not speak the truth about what they saw, because they are fearful of the power that still exists which threatens to and will destroy them if they speak!

Of course, there are other reasons, for not telling the truth.  The truth may not support your ideology or special interests which you support.  Fear, and conflicting self-interests are all too real in our human social systems.  We see it every day.  These human realities surely existed back in the time of Jesus and beyond.  Why else would religious leaders at that time-period, or any time-period for that matter, betray the trust of those they were charged to protect!  The scriptures clearly tell us how the Religious Elite, The Leadership, were more concerned about protecting their own interests, rather than those they were surely charged to nurture and teach of God’s Love.  No, Elimination of fear and Purging of the Elements of Conflicts of Interest would not completely cure our human condition, yet it would surely help!  Today, Doubt still exists.  You doubt, perhaps that the scriptures have it recorded right.  Let us not forget it is Thomas’s doubt, about an impossible event which he did not personally witness, that drives our scripture lesson today.  Thomas was lucky, he gets the opportunity to be in the presence of the Risen Christ Jesus.  Even after Thomas confesses his belief in Jesus, saying: “My Lord, my God,” Jesus points out the obvious.  Most of his followers will not get this personal audience with Jesus.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” /John 20:29b/ Let us now add to that thought, based on our personal experiences in the Twenty-First Century.  ‘Blessed are those who have seen and are willing to speak of it with integrity!’  Let us be grateful that many have overcome fear so that they too… can witness in truth! 

We could speak further regarding the faithful ones who have come to believe without firsthand proof.  Jesus has lifted them up with praise.  Surely, they are the pillars of our churches and of our society.  They are the ones that give of themselves ceaselessly and without reservation.  They are the ones that surely supported giving an extra hand for the countless others… especially those that needed some extra help in their faith journeys.  They are the ones that did and still do support this piece of scripture’s usage – especially during this week after the Easter celebration just passed.  Because, the faithful ones, who have learned to trust in God, they intuitively, know how hard it is to step over that abyss, that chasm of doubt and hesitation.  Uncertainty is another word for describing one’s doubts, our own disbeliefs.  Are we uncertain whether we can trust the word of someone from ‘that side of town’?  Surely, we have reservations that a person from that part of the country will not be biased in this discussion!?  Unquestionably, we all have misgivings about people who wear purple sunglasses. (smile) Most folks have, at one time or another, distrusted someone’s opinion on a contentious or divisive matter, without stopping to consider or seeking to understand the “full conversation” surrounding the subject matter.  (Some call that ‘contempt prior to investigation!)  Surely, you have a suspicion about that new guy or gal because they look different then you or sound different.  Perhaps you have skepticism because of a bias you have clung to for a long, long time without considering the other side of the matter.  What question or questions, do you still have surrounding the resurrection of Christ?

Why is it important to acknowledge our doubts?  The writer of this gospel account, which we read this morning, thought it was important.  And it is important because others do have doubts.  They have not yet come to believe in God’s grace and mercy because they are afraid that we are wrong.  Their fear may spring from our unwillingness to check ourselves when we foolishly say things that rational grown and educated adults know are questionableHeck yeah, we ought to say to their questions and doubts, “Yes! It is hard to believe some of the details of that which is written!”  If we get off our pedestals, get off our pious views that we have the only answer, then they might truly listen to what we say… long enough for us to speak of our faith in a more personal manner.  When the rent is past due, or a loved one is in the hospital – it is not a good time to debate the details of a testimonial that went several decades or more before anyone wrote it down!  No, people that are seeking an understanding of God want to know how God can help them, now!  People relate to others who feel like they feel.  When we want someone to hear what we have to say, we need to listen to what they are saying.  When we read about how a Disciple of Jesus was doubting that the others really saw Jesus seemingly alive, after he was dead three days, it gives us permission to ask questions and seek out answers!  Give yourself and others permission to ask questions, trust that God will help you with the answers. 

Amen.      

“Raised Up!”

Acts 10:34-43, April 4th, Easter Sunday!

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


Communion

“Hear now the testimony of the Apostle Peter as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter ten, verses thirty-four thru forty-three.”

Acts 10:34-43.

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.  36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.  37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.  39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.  They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.  43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

“Having heard the testimony from an eyewitness to the happenings surrounding that first Easter, consider the implications to your own life today!”

“Raised Up!”

The Easter story is the greatest drama ever written!  Better than any creation that any writer has ever written!  The central character is lifted-up as the great healer – then he is betrayed, flogged, and brutally executed – crucified!  An innocent man is crucified because people loved him and flocked around him to hear every word he said!  Then the unbelievable mystical ending which turns out to be the beginning of yet another ongoing drama – sequel after sequel!  Listen once again to the setting by which Peter became aware of the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

John 20:1-18

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The scriptures tell us there were many other sightings of the risen Christ.  An amazing breath-taking event; witnessed by a great many.  Without a doubt the most astonishing event in history!   We retell the story every year at this time, so that others who follow us will know of this event.  That is what has happened over, and over again ever since that first day.  Therefore, this is why… we hear Peter sharing, once again, the accounting as we read out loud from the Acts of the Apostles.  By the time of this writing, Peter had been convinced that the Apostle Paul was meant to take the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to the gentiles, the non-Jews.  For he had come to realize through a vision that the message of God’s forgiveness and life everlasting is meant to be shared with all people!  History tells us this was shared one on one, and in small group gatherings, till eventually the accounts were recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the four gospel accounts, which we now rely on so heavily.  Therefore, it is our task, our responsibility to pass these writings, these testimonies on to the next generations, while teaching others of how we heard about all the happenings in ancient Jerusalem so long ago!

What is still so exciting about all this is that it is still being recorded, here and there of someone seeing yet another sighting or phenomena that simply cannot be explained.  Perhaps you have had a personal experience, or you have heard it told by someone else.  Those of us who have embraced the truth of the Easter event, our faith journeys have been greatly enhanced.  When exactly was the first time you heard the story of Easter?  Or perhaps, more importantly, how did you hear about it and when did you actually-begin, to understand it’s meaning?  Was it that Sunday, or was it the Saturday just before when your participated in an Easter Egg hunt?  Or found an Easter basket set out for you to enjoy?  Was it when it was explained to you that the eggs symbolize new life, new birth?  Do you remember the Easter Lilies that adorned the sanctuary on Easter Sundays over the years?  Then the Youth Leader or was it the young pastor who showed you the buds, the unopened blossoms of the Easter lilies and explained how they too would open-up to new life, while showing you the contrast of the blossoms already open?!

How many of you are old enough to remember all the beautiful Easter bonnets the ladies of the church would wear?  There are still many that do put on their Easter bonnets to express their joy on Easter Sunday!  A great many find occasion to join with loved ones or close friends to share a splendid meal in celebration!  This can be so meaningful, as just saying Easter, the message of Easter that is… is so special, is just not enough if we can not find a way to express it with love and joy with someone other than just ourselves!  I remember when I first started as the Pastor in Middletown, New York.  Apparently, I had shared my love for chocolate and my friends had fun, literally filling the pulpit with large Milk chocolate Easter bunnies!  I had to literally, unpack the pulpit before I could preach my Easter message that year!  Still brings a smile in my heart.  Was it my head Deacon Dick or was it my old friend Roger that put that ‘really’ big one there that day – I was never quite sure?  Receiving a gift is special, yet, giving one is even more special.  Isn’t that; is this not what Jesus did for us… he gave us a gift!

Last week we spoke about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  It was an exciting event.  Then we talked about the agony of his betrayal, his tortuous mock trail and brutal execution.  It was and still is hard to remember these events.  Life can be like that at times.  We all know this.  However, knowing that our God, incarnate, mystically, personified, and alive in the man Jesus, experienced our pain, the injustice of it all and the agony of death, is gratifying.  Not that he suffered, but that he fully and completely knows the plight of our humanness!  That in of itself is reassuring as we desperately need a God that understands completely, our human dilemma!  Through Christ Jesus, God understands the pain of losing a loved one as well as a multitude of other human tragedies, personally.  It would be hard to truly trust in something or someone that has no idea what we are experiencing.  That, for most of us, is the crux of the matter!  Last week, I inserted the letter B instead of the letter M intro a numerical illustration, a point which I was making.  It is embarrassing to change a reference to a half million – into a half billion.  Many of you said it was no big deal, yet, if my audience were bigger it could have been.  For those I may have offended please forgive me.  Thankfully, the Easter message tells me, God has already forgiven me.  It is heartening to know that when I stand before my Creator, God will understand my humanness and will be merciful unto me and to you also.

When our offspring grow up and become adults, and their child’s children as well – shall they remember the true meaning of the Easter message?  If we forget to tell them why we use, as an Easter story illustration, an ugly caterpillar who spins a cocoon and goes into a state of regeneration, a seemingly death like state; yet when it is apparently reborn, when the process is complete, coming forth from its tomb like cocoon and rise-up on new and beautiful butterfly wings!  Do we tell those who listen to us, that new life is what Easter is all about?  And Easter is about being reborn free from our sinful past lives!  To a child this may simply mean their parents have forgiven them for the lie they told or the dime they took without permission.  The taste of as fresh piece of milk chocolate or a sugary jellybean, or even a decoratively colored hard-boiled egg may pass them the message that Easter is about a wonderful event that can change everything… beginning with that need to be acknowledged as special, no matter what we may have been or done last-night, yesterday or even the day-before!  New Life, Forgiveness and Easter go hand in hand.

The blush of Easter is a moment of joy in the midst the true realities of life.  Just as when we celebrate the special moments in our lives, we have learned that joy can last for but a moment.  Easter, however, shall last long past the last tear shed when our earthly bodies breathe their last!  Easter is about celebrating the gift of forgiveness and the promise of life-everlasting.

Shortly, we shall gather at the table of our Lord, remembering his last meal, his last night with his closest disciples.  Within the ritual of the communion meal, we shall remember Jesus’ humanness that transcends past his broken body and his spilt blood.  We lift-up his humanness which on that first Easter morning, transformed into the Spiritual realm of resurrection and new – life!  

Happy Easter.

Amen.

“Excitement then Agony”

Matthew 21:1-11, March 28th, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


Sixth Sunday of Lent – Palm & Passion Sunday

“Hear now these words from the gospel account of Jesus’ ministry, his life, and all that happened surrounding the events in Jerusalem at that time.  Our reading today comes from the gospel of Matthew, chapter twenty-one, verses one thru eleven.”

Matthew Chapter 21: verses 1-11,

1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”  4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

“Having heard the writings pertaining to the excitement of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the crowd that greeted him… let us now open our hearts to hear and reflect on the full story.”

“Excitement then Agony”

What is it that you remember about the first time you heard the story, which we just read this morning, where you not excited and filled with awe and wonder that Jesus had a parade!?  For years we have dragged in great branches of Palm Branches to symbolize all that this day means.  When the children would be parading around the church with the pastor singing and shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”  The words that correctly tell us what Hosanna truly means are: “Help Us!  We beseech you O Lord… Please… We pray… Save Us!”   Symbolically they threw down their cloaks as Jesus, rides by them on his small young donkey.  They cut branches from the trees and put them down on the dusty road trying to create a ‘red carpet’ style of a parade as he rode by!  The pleas for help seemed to have taken a ‘back seat’ as story tellers retold this account over, and over again over the years, the decades, the centuries that now number into two millennial!  We all have rallied around the palm branches that can be cut for such a celebration here in Florida – here where such branches are common.     

Moving away from the accounting of that first Palm Sunday parade and into our current time, things seem a bit different.  Here we are in the Twenty-First Century, a full year, twelve months, three-hundred and sixty-five plus days… into a world-wide pandemic that has altered so, so many things in our lives!  “Hosanna!” Now it feels like what it truly means: “Help Us!  We beseech you O Lord… Please… We pray… Save Us!”  It has been a long and difficult year.  The sanctuary last year at this time, on Palm Sunday, had just two Palm Branches which Tyler cut for me and dragged into the sanctuary.  There may have been six of us as we broadcast a very small worship celebration out over Facebook and then posted the audio of the pastor’s sermon on our website.  It sure didn’t seem like Palm Sunday that day.  Today, we might have a larger number in our service… twenty, thirty maybe.  Maybe another hundred folks are with us through various social media avenues as we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  This year, even as we see major strides forward… as millions are getting the vaccine administered, we are still losing loved ones to the virus.    

Even as we work to come back to ‘right order’, we have begun to realize that things, our understanding of our very lives have shifted!  No, life has not gone back to what it once was, and perhaps it ought not!  During the pain of this last year many different events have caused us, as a small church community, as a city, county, state and as a country… that this pandemic has tested us to the breaking point!  Thankfully, there is a great many Americans, and men, women and children throughout the world who have stood up and expressed love in countless ways!  Christ surely is smiling upon those we now lift-up.  Where do we start?  Was it the child that began a food drive to feed the hungry and it mushroomed and got national attention?  And was it from her ‘heart felt love’ that a great number of people have been fed, in a time of ‘great hardship and necessity?’  Nurses, doctors, fire fighters and EMT’s, the local police, both men and women, black Hispanic and white, have stood up and done the right thing!  Love, love has taken hold in the most unexpected places.  We have only named a few of our front-line workers during this period, in ‘spirit’ we lift them all up, in gratitude, and ask God’s blessing upon them as they continue to work diligently to save others – realizing that they do this out of love, dedication and with integrity!  Where did all this love and goodness come from!?  It came into town on a small donkey as the people reached out to Jesus – begging for compassion and mercy!  And Jesus responded with his all!  

Evil, Immorality, and Maliciousness, were also parading into Jerusalem.  The powers of the Roman army and Pilate himself came into Jerusalem ignoring and scoffing at the needs of the people, sneering at their pathetic efforts to be justly treated and be freed from the oppression of their conquerors!  What we do not know is what crowd, what people were watching and cheering them on – as they entered the gates of Jerusalem.  As the weeks led into months of social distancing and shortages of paper products and various food items, people allowed their dark sides to emerge.  Were they always there, behind the shadows, in the back of the crowds that cheered Jesus and even welcomed Pilate into Jerusalem?  Were they there before the ‘public outcry’ over yet another unjust killing of an innocent man, a man judged guilty because of the color of his skin, his ethnicity?  The parade into Jerusalem is just the beginning of a very dramatic story.  The full telling of the story of this past year in these United States of America… it will reveal the truth, the depth, and the fullness of the dark side of humankind – which exists within our very own society.  Yes, there are at least two sides to every story… but what we have seen, heard, and experienced firsthand… is the living thread of human hate which is cultivated through fear, greed, and power, hate that is seeking to expel the love of God in our society!

This leads us away from the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and deeper into the human drama, the tragedy which follows.  Listen now to the words as written in the gospel of Matthew Chapter 26: (Verses:14-16, 26-28 & 36) “14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver.  16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him (to betray Jesus).  26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  Betrayal within the ranks of Jesus’ own ‘handpicked’ closest followers and disciples.  Thirty pieces of silver was enough to buy off the loyalty of one of his followers, Judas Iscariot!  Even as Jesus knew who was to betray him, he took no action against him.  Rather he asked his loyal followers to go with him as he went to pray. 

The rest of the story of the arrest, the pain and injustice of the mock trial that night is difficult to read.  Yet, without it, the story is incomplete!  That very night, Jesus stopped his disciples from resisting the soldiers who came to arrest him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” /Matthew 26:52-54/ After being taken before Pilot and flogged, in a mock trial, Jesus is dragged away to be crucified at a place called Golgotha.  As he hung on that cross dying, they nailed a marker upon the cross. “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” /Matthew 26:37/ The man Jesus died that day on a cruel torturous cross.  The evil of humankind did their utmost to kill love, kindness, compassion, and mercy that day.  For three long agonizing days it appeared that wickedness, hatefulness, and immorality had won out!  We cannot allow ourselves to skip over this pain, for we shall not celebrate Easter until we have accepted the darkness of human treachery.  Deceitfulness, treason, and sedition still exist, and it hurts; it hurts really bad!

In the Fourth Century after the time of the man Jesus, the leaders of the then Christian Church discussed the full story of Jesus.  They called the ecumenical conference as the ‘The First Council of Nicaea’.  They came to the agreement that the man Jesus, born of Mary, was in essence one-hundred percent human and God incarnate; therefore, one hundred percent the essence of God as well.  History refers to that agreement as the Nicene Creed, held in the year 325 AD.  For all you scholars of church history out there, forgive me my brevity and brief summation of the work done so long ago.  Yet, many well educated men and women, better qualified than I, have come to similar summaries.  The professors at the Theological School I attended and received my Master’s in Divinity degree gave me these words to work with.  What’s the point of this you ask?  The point being is the essence of God has suffered the pain of life and death.  The man Jesus died on that cross, giving his very life so that we might live!  The Son of Man, the Son of Humankind died, died on a cruel cross for our sinfulness that we might have life everlasting!  William Loader tells us that “The killing of love, the killing of Jesus, becomes the would-be killing of God.  It is ‘decisive, conclusive and the standard’ (paradigmatic) for all time.”  (Adapted words of William Loader) Yes, this model, this typical would-be killing of all forms of the loving essence of humankind is still happening! 

We need not go through the list of modern time examples of human evil, sinfulness that still seeks to rob humankind of the love so freely offered to us all!  If you have a short memory or are in denial, simply take the time to read four or five of the top stories of the past week.  IE: Another Mass Shooting, the need for Sympathetic and Compassionate Immigration reform, the January sixth Violence, over a Half Million Americans have died of the Covid-19 virus, Racism, Discrimination, Racial Intolerance, and Intolerance of others that do not look like us or sound like us!  Let us pray “We Shall Over Come!” just as this gospel song proclaims.  Let us all raise up Dr. Martin Luther King and broadcast those famous words “I Have a Dream!  “Hosanna!” “Help Us!  We beseech you O Lord… Please… We pray… Save Us!”  “Hosanna! Hosanna! to the Highest Heaven!” 

Amen.     

“God Will Forgive!”

Jeremiah 31:31-34, March 21st, 2021

Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard


Fifth Sunday in Lent

“Hear now these words from the Old Testament Lesson from the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah chapter thirty-one, verses thirty -one thru thirty-four.” 

“31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.  33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

“Having listen with our ears let us now hear from our hearts the message, the lesson that has been passed to us through the vast passage of time… for our use in today’s time.”

“God Will Forgive!”

What is most striking about this Old Testament passage is that the prophet of old, Jerimiah, was speaking of a compassionate and forgiving God and a God who expected to be in covenant, to be in fellowship… kind of like a partnership with an expectation that the people would hold up their end of the agreement!  The words of the prophet were saying and are saying, that we the people of God would come to know, clearly know what was expected and we would come to fully know the heart of God, just as God knows our hearts.  The conflict for us… as we hear these words, is whether we really want God to know our hearts!  We are still in the time of Lent my friends, this a time to take stock of our relationship with God.  Which is comparable to a relationship with a close friend, or perhaps an advisor.  In some circles of faith folks have Spiritual advisors to help one with one’s relationship with God.  Let us pray that most of us are understanding this dialog.  Therefore, you know the heart of God and God knows yours.  If you are not there yet, then pay heed to what is being said here, for it is crucial to your faith journey.  Preparing your journey of faith will take preparation and will require some action some initiative from you.  Yes, we are saved through faith, yet it takes action to follow through and journey with God.

Therefore, we shall approach our lesson this morning with hopeful hearts, drawing on this statement form John C. Holbert – regarding the prophet’s words.  “Jeremiah’s famous words are thus hope and warning; do the work of God but allow God finally to reap God’s own harvest.”  Hope is certainly something which we all need, which we all long for actually!  Even way back before the time of Christ, this prophet believed that that the word of God offered hope to a broken and discouraged people; the tribes of Israel, these Hebrew people who had escaped from slavery in Egypt, only to face the harshness of the barren wastelands as they migrated toward a promised land.  Thus, the prophet spoke to the house of Judah and the house of Israel prophesying that God would again covenant with them, forgiving them of their past sinfulness.  He was telling the people God was offering them, a second chance, an opportunity to allow God to once again be their God! 

Let us draw from current experiences.  Say you are interested in hiking up a high mountain.  Why would you want to hike up a mountain you ask?  Because those who have gone before you speak of its beauty and splendor and how exhilarating an experience it was for them and you now get interested in experiencing it for yourself.  OK, so let’s start with a small one like Mount Washington in New Hampshire.  It is only six thousand two hundred and eighty-eight (6288) feet tall.  Tallest mountain in the northeastern region of the United States, but small in contrast to Mount Denali, in earlier times it was known as Mount Mckinley in Alaska.  It is twenty thousand, one hundred and fifty-six feet tall (20,156).  Now that’s a really big mountain!  Consequently, we will stick with this smaller one in New Hampshire.  If you were to plan a day hike up that mountain you would need to do some preparation and invest in the correct gear to carry with you.  If you are spontaneously deciding to hike this mountain you may be in for a rude surprise.  The same goes for you that have decided, suddenly, that you want that closer walk with God.  If that is where you are… then you will need to prepare to give up your less than faithful lives, thereby making room in your life to become devoted and faithful to the ways of God.  You need to realize – it takes a bit more than the “statement” ‘I will faithfully follow God!’  Let us endeavor to more fully understand this thought as it is very important to all of us and especially you – if this is the start of something new in your journey. 

Personally, I have climbed Mount Washington a good six or seven times.  In a youth group within my home church, we went as a group.  We were advised ahead of time as to what clothing to bring: hiking boots that cover and support your ankles; key to a safe hiking experience.  Wool socks, several pairs.  A wool hat to cover your head down to your ears, wool mittens, or gloves and a wool sweater.  Don’t forget a good rain suit, pants and jacket, and other personal items needed, including a canteen to carry clean drinking water.  Still want to hike this mountain(?) The youth group was being prepared for just two nights on top of the mountain with three days of hiking.  The second day was one hundred percent above the tree line where the trail is primarily just rocks.  Preparing for a mountain hike is sort of like preparing to accept the agreement which God was offering the people of old.  Great benefits to have God on your side and in your camp, yet there is a learning curve, sort of like a time of preparation.  All adventurous first-time hikers long to see the world from its top!  And it is a glorious view and most worthy of the effort to get there.  But preparation is needed.  Thankfully, God was promising the Israelites a lot of help in preparation for this transition.  Likewise, the leaders of our youth group guided us, step by step to be prepared for our mountain experience.

Alan Brehm reminds us of the promise which Jeremiah said, “the days are coming.”  Days of restoration, days of rebuilding, days of returning to hope and faith and joy.   With this promise in mind, we can find the faith not to lose heart in the face of all that is wrong with our world.”  The youth director and the Pastor of the church himself, promised an adventure that would change our understanding of God’s Creation.  And it did!  Even after the pep talk about how strenuous eight hours of hiking in a mountain can be… we all still wanted to go!  Even as the adventure began, the bugs, flying insects and mosquitoes in the low valley areas as we hiked in close to the base of the mountain, they did not stop us, and they were soon forgotten as we begin to hike up into the mountain.  As the trees changed from oak and maple to pine and spruce, then it began to feel different.  Half-way up we got a glimpse of the vastness as we gazed out into the valley now far below.  Wow!  What a sight!  Being fully in relationship, in collaboration with God is that exciting as well!  And yes, there are some adjustments to be made.  Rearranging our schedules to be involved with like minded followers of God’s covenant will be needed.  We each must personally make the commitment to partner and link up with God.  When we do this with an attitude of humility and a desire to set things right, with those we are in relationship with, then we can feel the fullness of God’s release from past misdeeds.  As we become clearer as to how it feels to stand in the light of God’s love and grace we shall realize, just as a mountain hiker realizes as they reach the top, that the world takes on new meaning – as our vision and insights into the order of things… shifts. 

Such a shift in focus is clearly what the prophet Jeremiah was seeking for those his words were first intended to reach.  Like the mountain hiker who needs a bit of encouragement to climb over that next large boulder in his or her pathway, so shall we as we continue forward on our journeys of faith.  The warning can easily be understood for the hiker who becomes nervous when they realize the trail, which they are being led on is long and there are streams to cross and rocks to climb and obstacles to face as they seek the ultimate victory of getting to the top.  To stop moving forward no matter the challenge, means they might be left behind and never experience the promised reward.  Thus, it has been for the ancient people of which Jeremiah first spoke.  If they did not respond to his prophesies that feeling of desperation and hopelessness would continue to dampen their spirits and darkness would once again surround them.  As we begin to transition from our scripture account and analogy of the mountain hiker, we need to consider how this lesson shall influence our current lives.  We may wish to consider the landscape of these past months going back a year.  The whole world has felt the tension which has come with the misfortune and burden of this virus.  We all want relief from it as well as relief from the social inequalities which have surfaced as we seek a new world order and a return to normalcy. 

There are always false trails on any hike into the mountains.  It is why an experienced hiked gets acquainted with the terrain by looking at maps and, in many mountain adventures, checking with the rangers who know the terrain well and are there to help you safely enjoy the journey.  No one wants to get lost in a strange place.  Likewise, we do not need to feel lost or alone as we journey forward with our quest to be in relationship and in covenant with God.  The irony in our contrast to the seeker of God’s grace and the mountain hiker is that once we are lost and the darkness over comes us, there is only one source of help.  God is the answer.  If we can cling to this there shall be renewed hope.  If we come to the end of our rope… to whom, do we turn?  “We turn to God!”  To not reach out seeking the hand of God, we shall continue to be lost.  Perhaps the hiker has been wise and has prepared well for the trek into the vast forest surrounding the mountain and after saying a prayer, ‘even though lost’ they calm down and refocus.  In that moment they accept their plight and make camp right where they are… realizing they have the things needed for such a moment, radically improving the likelihood of being found sooner then too late.  We each need to trust God as we journey.  By following the simple directions which we glean from a Bible class or the Pastor’s sermon each Sunday, or from that Spiritual adviser we have been talking with regularly, we shall find our way through those cloudy darkened moments with – new hope

The days are surely coming, says the Lord! /Jeremiah 31:31/

New hope is surely coming says our God.

Don’t give up before the miracle comes!

The view from the Mountain Top – well it is just something you must experience for yourself!

Amen.