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Vox Dei vs. Vox Populi

Children's sermon
For January 13, 2018:
  • Vox Dei vs. Vox Populi by Chris Keating — This week’s texts suggest that “looking” may not be as essential as “listening,” however. The texts for Baptism of the Lord Sunday are chock full of a variety of images...
  • Second Thoughts: Credentials — and the Great Unknown by Tom Willadsen — Don’t try to buy that love, grace or forbearance. You can’t begin to control it...
  • Sermon illustrations by Bethany Peerbolte, Mary Austin and Ron Love.
  • Worship resources by George Reed that focus on recognizing the voice that calls us where we need to go; deficiency and its remedy.
  • An Exultation of Larks Children’s sermon by Dean Feldmeyer — We live in a culture that values independence but scripture reminds us that while independence is nice, we are also called to be there for each other even as God is there for us.

Vox Dei Vs. Vox Populi
by Chris Keating
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Just like the crowds gathered around John the Baptist, the world is holding its breath, questioning in their hearts who will run for president in 2020, and whether she or he will be the Messiah.

Spoiler alert: don’t be looking for a white stallion. Despite the plethora of presidential wannabes and maybes, most assuredly none of them would be worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandals.

Though sandals would certainly be preferable to scandals.

It’s already a crowded field, and could include Republican challengers to President Trump. On the Democratic side, Elizabeth Warren has already launched her campaign, while many are waiting to hear from Bernie Sanders and even Hillary Clinton. Down in Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke says he is still looking for an “epiphany” or some level of clarity, while San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has set January 12 for his announcement. Former Vice President Joe Biden is on the fence still, though former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has said he’s out.  The list of potential candidates goes on: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, newly elected New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.  There are likely many others who if pressed would say, “I’m taking a hard look at whether or not they will run.”

This week’s texts suggest that “looking” may not be as essential as “listening,” however. The texts for Baptism of the Lord Sunday are chock full of a variety of images, predominantly including God’s voice. Throughout the Psalm, Isaiah and Luke texts, the sound of God’s voice reverberates in full Dolby stereo.

John baptizes, the Spirit descends, believers pray, but most often God speaks.  God’s voice offers comfort and challenge, guidance and correction. In the thunderous affirmation of Jesus as the Beloved Son of God in Luke 3:22, the stage is set for Jesus’ ministry. There’s no exploratory committee needed, or initial investors solicited. It is a reminder that while leaders pay attention to the voice of the people, the multivalent manifestation of God’s voice is also worth considering.

In the News
News flash: someone who says they are “testing the waters” of running for president is already heavily invested in the effort.

At this point, it might be easier to gather a list of people who are not considering making a run for president in 2020.  Before the November midterm elections, the FiveThirtyEight website listed some thirty candidates whom have made some sort of indication of running.  Included are those with instant name recognition (Sanders, Biden, Warren) as well as lessor known persons such as Governor Steve Bullock of Montana, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and 37-year-old California congressman Eric Swalwell.

While Joe Biden claims he is he most qualified contender, he’s also not said he is definitely running.  Other Democrats are pushing for a solidly progressive candidate, pointing out that Biden’s centrism will be a losing brand in 2020.  Still others are busy constructing out of the box fantasy ballot mashups that pair up Biden with Mitt Romney or even a third centrist party headed by someone along the lines of John Kasich.

The milling of a candidate is an arduous process, drawing heavily on the vox populi, or voice of the people. Generations ago, politicians would often tie this to another Latin phrase: vox Dei, or “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” Today some might say the “voice of the PAC is the voice of God,” or, “the voice of the Koch brothers becomes the voice of God.” One wonders how much even the still, and most smallest voice of God is involved today.

As candidates and supporters coalesce around issues, strategy and funding, the process begins to take on the feeling of  armchair sports fans assembling fantasy teams. Nate Silver and his staff at FiveThirtyEight, for example, held their own intramural Democratic Primary draft, with Bernie Sanders, Kamela Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand drawing attention. Even the odds makers are getting in on the action, though Odds Shark still has President Trump as most likely to win.

Name recognition and status may be important, but at this point a lot also depends on an often-mercurial mixed cocktail of momentum and money. Some candidates – like Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro – have tried to outrun the pack by forming exploratory committees. Others, like O’Rourke, are measuring their response more carefully, although there are indications that an impressive “draft Beto” movement is forming. As Dylan Scott noted in Vox last week, when a candidate announces the formation of an exploratory committee that is a strong indicator that she/he is (almost) definitely running:

Presidential candidacies have become a two-step dance. First, you announce you are exploring a run for president. Then you announce you are running for president. Barack Obama announced an exploratory committee in January 2007 and then made it official in February. Mitt Romney started exploring in April 2011 and then formally joined the race at the beginning of June. It’s not a must, though: Hillary Clinton went ahead and launched her 2016 campaign, without bothering with an exploratory committee.

While not every candidate goes the exploratory route – Hillary Clinton did not – many candidates use this to jumpstart fundraising. An exploratory committee allows a candidate to raise money, hire staff, and travel.  In other words, it’s a good sign the person has tested the waters and seems to feel at home in the current.

Testing the water involves a whole lot more than wading into political currents. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both said telling their children was harder than making a public announcement.  Bush’s twin daughters have said they tried unsuccessfully to veto their father’s decision. In his memoir Decision Points, Bush describes that he while there was never a single moment of clarity leading to his decision, it was hardly a surprise to anyone in his family or circle of supporters. Obama, on the other hand, had barely been elected to the United States Senate before he began to realize a rare window of opportunity might be open to him.

As America enters the next round of this political reality show, potential candidates are already having those sorts of tough conversations, and searching for the right moment, the right supporters, and hopefully the right moral compass. It’s a reality show, but certainly more taxing than “The Bachelor” or “The Voice.” Like Jesus wading into the Jordan, those contemplating running for president realize the world is about to turn.

In the Scriptures
Crowded along the banks of the river, those watching John baptize are filled with expectations and questions. Like bystanders at a political rally, their minds are racing with ideas and possibilities. “Is he the one?” “Are we listening to the Messiah?” “How will we know?”  Luke reinforces the communal nature of Jesus’ baptism at the outset, while also underscoring John’s unique preparatory ministry.

John – in echoes of the fiery, shock and awe language of Psalm 29 – assures the crowd that the one who is coming  is “more powerful than I.”  In other words, John’s bold proclamation and wild asceticism are mere child’s play to the One who will bring the Holy Spirit. Luke does not say how this went over with the crowd, but this must have surely stirred the crowd even more.

Luke’s focus here is on a theology of community. Jesus emerges from that community. His baptism takes place in the same waters as the others, and he shares with them their hopes, prayers, and deepest yearnings. Luke holds the focus on this broken community, asserting that it is from here that Jesus has arisen.

The crowd seems to be testing the waters. Not long after all had been baptized, Luke indicates that Jesus steps forward, silently presenting himself for baptism. Jesus’ silence is broken when the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. Suddenly, there comes the voice. It’s the surprising, challenging, and undeniable voice of God delivering the powerful pronouncement: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

It’s much more than the announcement of a campaign. It is the affirmation of Jesus’ calling and purpose, a powerful reminder for all who enter the waters of baptism. Here awaits the Vox Dei, the voice of God, a voice much more significant than the voice of the people.

In the Sermon
Football playoffs may generate more anticipation for our parishioners than Jesus’ Baptism. However, Luke’s focus on the crowds, their energy, questions, and enthusiasm offer one point of entry for this text. A sermon could begin by identifying with the crowd’s questions and uncertainties. Like them, we too are wondering about the future.  Uncertainty fills every conversation, or so it seems. The political impasse in Washington, the ongoing government shutdown, questions about global climate change, and the overcrowded field of presidential candidates are just a few of the questions our members will bring with them this Sunday.

Baptism of the Lord Sunday offers a chance to explore these questions.  Not only do we hope for someone who can lead us out of our difficulties, we are also offered a chance to reflect on the meaning of baptism.  Begin the sermon by identifying the various questions that have led us to faith, or perhaps the various questions we carry on our hearts every day.

As the people voice their questions, Jesus steps forward to be baptized. In his baptism he is joined in solidarity with the crowd, a reminder of his obedience to God. His baptism acknowledges the tragedy of human sin, as well as his solidarity with those who suffer. Unlike those who boast of being a favorite son/daughter of a state or political affinity group, Jesus is affirmed as God’s son because of his participation in the flawed, painful and often treacherous world. This favorite son is not elected but divinely appointed, and that is our good news.

Political candidates may be emerging  out of the woodwork, but Christ emerges out of human agony.

In this story of baptism, Jesus’ vocation becomes clear. Something similar may be happening in the lives of our members or in the life of the church at large. Filled with questions, we long for a moment of clarity (perhaps like Beto O’Rourke). Wondering about our next move, we stand in the water, waiting for our name to be called. We know, as the character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River” knows, that when we emerge out of the water, we will be changed.

The Vox Dei figures prominently in this text. Perhaps our task is not unlike John the Baptist, whose economy of words is notable in this passage. As preachers, we stand in the current of the swiftly-moving streams of culture, faith, and human life. We point not to ourselves (thankfully) but to the one who stands with those gathered along the banks. Our sermon could prepare places where the Spirit of God might fall afresh once more, and with it the affirmation “in you I am well pleased.”

Credentials — and the Great Unknown
by Tom Willadsen
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17      

Luke — There’s a spirited conversation in this week’s lesson from Luke this week. The movement that John the Baptizer has started out at the Jordan has attracted a lot of people. His is more of a reform movement, one that is attracting a broad demographic — tax collectors and soldiers are among those taking part. He began his career citing the words of Isaiah; he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” The question is whether that voice belongs to the Messiah.

His followers were filled with expectation and questions. “Sorry, guys,” he replies, “all I baptize with is water…there will be someone after me who I cannot ever carry water for. The one coming later will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The phrase “baptism of fire” is one that is used commonly as a metaphor, usually when someone is forced to do something “in real life” that they have only prepared or practiced for. Baptisms of fire are when things count, when there are consequences.

John’s second sentence is often overlooked, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It also uses the imagery of fire. But don’t forget that winnowing requires wind, or at least moving air, to separate the grain from the chaff.

Wind is one image commonly used for the Holy Spirit; fire is another. The one day of the church year for which red is the color is Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came into the first disciples like tongues of fire, like the rush of a violent wind.

Wind and fire can be (have recently been) a potent combination. Climatologists and forestry professionals are confident that wildfires in the American west, and other places around the globe with similar climates, are exacerbated by global warming. That is, weather affects the fires. They are also finding that in more intense fires, the fires themselves create weather.

The fires are shaped by the weather, and the weather is shaped by the fire. This phenomenon is still not completely understood, but it has given experts new ways to imagine the life cycle of wildfires, and thus make predictions of how fires will spread more accurate. Still, wind and fire remain unpredictable, so they are excellent metaphors for people who are trying to follow the risen Christ.  

Certainly the intense fires/firestorms that California experienced late last year were demonstrations of the destructive power that the writer of this week’s psalm described.

Jesus went to John to be baptized. In Luke there is no discussion between the two men prior to Jesus’ having been baptized. The baptism itself is not recorded, just that following it, while Jesus was praying, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove.”

Acts — Immediately after this morning’s reading from Acts, a guy in Samaria named Simon offered John and Peter money for the power he had seen them display in laying hands on the people there. More on Simon in a moment….

First, a little background for this week’s reading: Things had not been going well for the Christians in Jerusalem. There had been dissention among them — conflict between the Helenists and the Hebrews — discussed in Acts 6. Then there was the whole stoning of Stephen which was the first step in a “severe persecution.”

Philip, one of the Helenists, got out of town and was up in Samaria preaching Christ among the Samaritans. Can you believe it? Yet, they were receptive and were baptized. Even this guy Simon, a magician who was doing amazing things in Samaria, was baptized. Philip was doing more amazing things though.

Word spread to Jerusalem and two of the Hebrew leaders, John and Peter, travelled to Samaria. Upon arriving in Samaria they found that while the believers in there had been baptized, they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus and had not received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritan Christians and they received the Holy Spirit.

I suspect it is significant that the magician who seeks the Holy Spirit is named “Simon.” Could this Simon be a reminder of how Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he would build his church, had been Simon earlier — and did not understand what Jesus was saying? Is Simon the magician a way for the reader to see how far the Simon who became Peter has come?

Credentials, In the News
The NFL regular season ended December 30, and with it came an avalanche of head coach firings. As of January 4, there are eight NFL teams looking for new head coaches, 25% of NFL franchises. There is wide speculation about which teams may be interested in which coaches. There are also strict rules around when coaches can be interviewed — depending on how far in the playoffs teams go.

What qualities make good coaches? What kinds of experiences and skill sets do teams need to succeed with their current players? Are coaches with experience as head coaches better candidates than those who have only been, say, defensive play callers? I am not much of a football fan, but I live in Wisconsin, where 45% of the population is Roman Catholic, 45% is Lutheran and 100% are Packer fans. In December the Packers fired their coach mid-season, something they hadn’t done in more than six decades! It was big news.

What are they looking for?

What were all those people going out to John the Baptizer looking for?

What was Jesus looking for when he was baptized?

Simon, the magician in Acts 8, knew what he was looking for. He’d seen the miracles that Peter and John had done after making the trip from Jerusalem. We know what Simon was looking for, what he wanted for himself.

What about all those “partially baptized” believers in Samaria? Did they even know they lacked something?

Acts has some interesting phrasing here. Peter and John prayed for the Samaritans “that they might receive the Holy Spirit….Then Peter and John laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”

Pope Francis echoed this theology when he said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”

Could the Samaritans have received the Holy Spirit with prayer alone? Even prayer by the pioneers of the Christian faith, Peter and John? Could they have received the Holy Spirit just through the laying on of Peter and John’s hands?

(Presbyterians, we lay hands on Deacons, Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders whenever they are installed. Is that how the Holy Spirit works?)

What are we looking for? A recipe for receiving (conjuring?) the Holy Spirit?

The Great Unknown
Here’s the thing about the Holy Spirit, and the life of someone trying to follow the living Christ: there are no recipes, no guarantees. The symbols we use for the Holy Spirit are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Oh sure, we’re learning to harness the wind to make electricity and we’ve got cooking down pretty well, but every day we’re reminded that there is no, and can be no, certainty. No guarantees when it comes to the Christian life. The wind blows where it will.

Football teams go through rigorous analyses and interviews to get the coach that will bring a championship to their team. And every year there’s only one champion.

Wildfires have power that our best experts have not understood and underestimated for decades. Just focus on a single candle; can you know how the flame is going to move?

The Lord’s power to destroy — and create — are displayed in the powerful voice of thunder, of trees splitting, of hills skipping like calves.

And this mighty Lord also protects, shelters and nurtures all people. The Lord calls each person by name, because we are precious in the Lord’s sight.

Don’t try to buy that love, grace or forbearance. You can’t begin to control it. And no matter how hard you work, you won’t know whether you’ve found the right coach — the right set of skills, gifts, inclinations and experience — until the games are played.

So bask in this final reality you can’t control:

Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.


From team member Bethany Peerbolte:

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Psalm 29
I know that voice
Fox network recently debuted a new show called “The Masked Singer.” The show’s concept has been popular in Asian countries and has been adapted for an American audience. In the show there are six celebrity contestants, but no one knows who they are. Each contestant is disguised in a head to toe elaborate costume designed to hide the identity of the celebrity. When the contestants give interviews or answer questions their voice is also distorted to hide their identity. The only time you get to hear their real voice is then they are singing. Each week they face off singing against another contestant.  The most popular singers move on and the singer with the lowest votes has to reveal who they are and leave the competition.

The show itself is straight forward, but the real fun comes afterward while discussing theories of who everyone is with friends and co-workers. Twitter has already caught the frenzy with hashtags and theories to rival any good conspiracy theory. The first questions I got at brunch this week was “who do you think Monster is” followed with a list of reasons they think it is the rapper T-Pain. The show hides clues for viewers to catch and fuels the conspiracy type discussions.

The hardest part of the show is when you know you know that voice, but cannot quite place it. When the first contestant came out I knew the voice. It was familiar to me, but I couldn’t figure out why. The voice was obviously trained, male, and very vibrant. I knew I liked the person by their voice, it reminded me of fun and happy things. However, it sounded like a country singer and I do not listen to a lot of country songs. As I listened I tried to unfocus my ears, like looking at a hidden picture. Suddenly it hit me — Donny Osmond! My mom loved him when I was growing up and would play his songs on the long car rides to family vacations. That’s why I felt happy listening and why it sounded so familiar. I do not know if I am right, I’m fairly certain I’m right, and now I have to keep watching to find out if I am!

In the verses from Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, the people who gathered got to hear the voice of God. They did not see God but somehow knew who it was. I can only imagine the conspiracy theories that spiraled after that day. Leaving the few believers who knew in the heart of hearts it was actually God who spoke that day. We, too, do not get to see God when God speaks, but that does not mean God is silent. God is like the masked singer, disguised from sight but cannot fool our hearts. When we hear God speak there is something inside us that knows who it is.

* * *

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Psalm 29
Do you have tickets?
The Luke passage begins with people gathering to hear. They are curious and excited for what is to come. This may be the farewell tour and their last chance to see the man in action, John the Baptist Superstar. In true John fashion the accolades and rumors are snuffed out and the work is brought to the forefront. John is there to prepare them for the main event, Jesus. These people gathered certainly got tickets to the right show, this time Jesus is there with them, being baptized like them!

People still gather today to listen as a collective. Music concerts and festivals are as popular as ever. Authors like Michelle Obama are selling out arenas with the people who want to listen. When politicians hold town hall meetings communities gather to listen to their platforms. Court cases can even pull a crowd, especially if the case has been high profile. This Christmas as I drove around town I noticed an odd banner outside a local church. It said “Christmas Eve tickets now available.” This is a church that worships thousands of people every Sunday and it struck me that they anticipated so many people gathering on Christmas Eve that they gave out tickets.

Imagine if we gathered to hear the voice of God the same way we gather to hear the celebrity voices of our time. It’s not that the voice of God does not put on a show. Psalm 29 tells us it is capable of an amazing performance.

* * *

Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Psalm 29
Let’s Get This Trending!
The scripture readings this week are filled with awe inspiring verses. Isaiah speaks of walking through fire and not being burned, and everyone created in God’s glory. The people in Luke hear the voice of God claim Jesus as son. Psalm 29 says God’s voice can strip a forest bare and thunder over the waters. Our social media news feeds should be filled with these things this week.

After all, the point of posting on social media is to link ourselves with the most amazing things that happen throughout the day with the hope that our amazing thing will start trending or go viral. I had a friend post an upside-down rainbow she saw, and the post took off with comments about scientific explanations. Often what we think is amazing is only amazing to us. Our meals, our pets, our kids all get shared far too often and never go viral.

This week’s verses are filled with things that should be trending. There are times God gets trending on social media. Christmas was given its own filters and trending hashtag last month. When there is a tragedy praying hand emojis get a workout. If someone puts scripture over a pretty picture it will make its rounds on everyone’s newsfeed. However, these moments seem to pale in comparison to what is happening around John and the psalmist.

Maybe we have all been desensitized by CGI technology but why are we not freaking out about these things. Maybe we just don’t have the video evidence to get others excited about these words. We live in a very visual world where seeing is believing. If Jesus were to come back today would we believe the videos or think someone had just learned a new trick in photoshop? In a world that is so visual how do we get them to “see” these biblical truths? How do we use our voice to welcome others into the wonder of a relationship with God?

* * *

Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Apply Today to see if you Qualify!
In the Luke passage today John the Baptist is asked if he is the messiah. He corrects the misunderstanding by essentially saying he is not qualified for that job. Thankfully Jesus shows up to the interview and lands the messiah position. John is often portrayed as a less than confident, weirdo sidekick. Possibly because he did not have the ambition to take on the role the crowd wanted him to play. Society today is all about ambition and achievement but knowing when something is not your call is just as valuable.

Hewlett Packard studied the application habits of men and women in 2014. They found that women were more likely to not apply for a job if they did not meet all the requirements on a job description — essentially self-declaring they were not qualified for that job. Men on the other hand would apply for anything they felt they were at least 60% qualified for. Harvard Business Review analyzed these findings and found a couple reasons this may occur. First, women often do need to be more qualified to be hired or promoted. Business trends show men can count on the value of their potential being seen by employers. While women often must prove their competency before being considered.

Second, girls are more likely to learn to play by the rules, and study to earn the grades needed to take higher level classes. Until recently, boys were more likely to be encouraged to play on a team sport which teaches slightly different rules. When playing a sport kids learn that you don’t have to be the star to make the team. In fact, you rarely are any good when you first play the position. The coach sees your potential and you train to develop the skills the team needs to win. Team sports may be the reason men are more likely to take a promotion they do not feel qualified for, and why women do not apply for jobs unless they know they are 100% qualified.

Regardless of gender any promotion or job offer needs to be weighed against one’s values. Not taking a promotion does not mean you are a failure. If anything it means you are in tune with your gifts and resources and know what you have to offer. John may not have fully understood what being the messiah meant but he knew he was not the man for the job. He knew his job and did it well. No promotion necessary.

* * * * * *

From team member Mary Austin:

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Standing in the river with his cousin John, hearing God’s voice announce who he is, Jesus knows where he belongs. Author Johann Hari says that kind of belonging can be a cure for depression and anxiety. When Hari was a teenager in the 1990s, he felt a debilitating sadness that he couldn’t explain or even understand. “My doctor told me a story that was entirely biological. He said, ‘We know why people feel this way. There’s a chemical called serotonin in people’s brains. Some people lack it, you’re one of them, and all we need to do is drug you and you’ll be fine’.” For him, that didn’t feel right, although many people do benefit from medication. Hari says, for him, the causes of his depression were complex. Social stress. Lack of community. Childhood trauma. “It was a combination of social factors,” he says. “Growing up in a culture where you’re taught that what matters most is money and status. Growing up in a place with no community. … And I’d gone through childhood trauma, and childhood trauma can lead to adult depression.” With a fuller picture of his mental health, Hari realized he focused too much on himself and self-promotion. He began making a conscious effort to spend time helping others “and to just be present with the people I love,” he adds.

Connection can also heal, when we know where we belong, and have people around us. Jesus demonstrates the power of belonging for us, as he hears God’s voice. Hari writes “If you are depressed and anxious, you are not a machine with malfunctioning parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way out of our epidemic of despair is for all of us, together, to begin to meet those human needs — for deep connection, to the things that really matter in life.” His ideas are controversial, and have created a lot of conversation about depression, but we can all agree that a sense of belonging benefits everyone.

* * *

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Becoming Your True Self
At the end of his baptism, Jesus receives God’s affirmation of his belovedness. God gives a sign of divine approval to him as a person, a chosen son. We know that it will come but there’s no mention yet from God of what God is calling him to do. This moment is just about him as a beloved child. The movie If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from a James Baldwin novel, tells the love story of Tish and Fonny, who share a deep bond of love and acceptance. When Fonny is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Tish’s family surrounds him with a similar kind of acceptance. He is beloved to them, and they use all of their limited resources to try to clear his name. They, along with Tish, do everything in their power to show him who he truly is, and to remind him how beloved he is.

In the end, the long stint in prison for a crime he didn’t commit twists the relationship between Tish and Fonny. The human reminder of being beloved isn’t enough in the face of the evil that keeps Fonny in prison when he should be out.  

God’s announcement of being beloved holds a deep power for all of us, which human reminders can echo but never match.

* * *

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Something is Missing
Jesus would be able to fulfill his calling from God without being baptized by John, and yet he apparently feels incomplete without that step. Professor Jennifer Roberts of Harvard believes that college students today have their own places of incompleteness. They are too easily able to avoid boredom, and so also avoid deep thinking. Students who have grown up with the internet are missing skills in “deep patience and close attention,” things she says “are no longer found in nature. Pre-internet generations had to watch boring tv shows, read dull books and participate in tedious conversations because there was no other choice. Now, we can easily and quickly switch our attention to something livelier.”

Professor Roberts assigns her students to write a paper on one work of art. The student has to go to the museum and study the artwork for three hours — no less. The time, she says, is “designed to seem excessive…but students emerge astonished by what they have been able to see.” She notes that we think vision and seeing are instantaneous, but “there are details, relationships, and orders that take time to see.”

When we lack stimulation, new insights can emerge from our near-boredom. From the lack of excitement, depth comes — or what Professor Roberts calls “teaching strategic patience.” The absence of something gives birth to a different kind of depth.

* * * * * *

From team member Ron Love:

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
Evagrius Ponticus, also known as Evagrius the Solitary, was a Christian monk and ascetic who resided in a monastery in the Egyptian desert. Concerned with the temptations that besought people the most, in the year 375 he compiled a list of the eight terrible thoughts, also referred to as the eight evil temptations. The eight patterns of evil thought are gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride. The list was not to be one of condemnation; rather, it was to raise awareness to our most compelling temptations so that we would be self-disciplined enough to avert our attention from them. Almost two centuries later, in the year 590, Pope Gregory I, also known as Pope Gregory the Great, revisited the list and refined it to seven by combining two and adding two more of his own. Gregory’s list is more commonly known as the Seven Deadly Sins, which are: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.

Now, some 1,400 years later, as we move into the 21st Century, perhaps we ought to restore the list to eight. This time adding a temptation that had not appeared before but is appropriate for a technological society. The new temptation would be “fame.” In The New York Times an article was printed on November 11, 2009, by Alessandra Stanley who wrote, “Fame has a spellbinding power in American society, the one thing that can trump wealth, talent, breeding and even elected office. Reality shows and social Web sites like Facebook long ago knocked down barriers that kept ordinary people trapped in obscurity.” For this reason Stanley wrote, “…some people take huge risks for the freedom to be someone else – a celebrity.” She lifted up as examples the Salahis’ who crashed a White House state dinner, the Heene’s who pretended a child was trapped in a runaway balloon, and the Gosselin’s who showcased their eight children, all desiring to share the limelight of a reality television show.

* * *

Luke 3:17 “wheat” “chaff”
The religion of Hinduism understands the entrapment of living a self-centered life.  Hinduism is the oldest established religion in the world and the third largest. At the end of the first century C.E., the Laws of Manu were established. These laws report the four basic goals that motivate humanity, thus they have also come to be called the “Four Ends of Human Life.” A young man should transcend from a lower level to the next until he discovers the true meaning of life.

The journey begins with kama or pleasure. It is to discover purpose by gratifying the senses. At this stage Kama-sutra may be a familiar phrase to us having become a part of the English language lexicon. Kama-sutra is the often quoted text for its picturesque descriptions of various positions for sexual intercourse. It is here, at kama, as a hedonist, that one begins the journey of life. Unfulfilled, the young man moves to artha, which means financial success or wealth. This is the first attempt to set some real goals, but it reflects a misplaced ambition. He continues to sense an inner disquiet because as well as being successful he equally desires to be respected. Therefore he strives for dharma, which is righteous living. As a viable contributor to the community he knows he is doing good for others, but yet, there still remains an emptiness. His goal now becomes moksha, which means liberation or spiritual freedom, and it is here that the real purpose of life is realized. Moksha is attained by disidentification with the body and mind, which becomes the realization of our true identity.

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
In the 1970s Karl Menninger wrote a book that was widely read, studied, and discussed. Menninger was a Harvard educated psychiatrist who established the Menninger Sanitarium in 1925 in Topeka. As a psychiatrist he believed that mental health is dependent upon physical, social, cultural and moral (spiritual) health. A significant aspect of spiritual health is to be unencumbered by the ramifications of sin. Therefore his book, penned by a medical doctor, was titled Whatever Became of Sin? The following paragraph is the one that is most often quoted:

The very word “sin,” which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being’s life plan and life style. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared – the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin anymore? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (November 30, 1825 – August 19, 1905) was a French academic painter and traditionalist. In his realistic genre paintings he used mythological themes, making modern interpretations of classical subjects, with an emphasis on the female human body. In this painting he discloses the struggle of lust. Four nymphs tease and play with a satyr by trying to pull him into a lake. One nymph waves behind to three other nymphs in the distance, perhaps beckoning them to come and play with the satyr as well. The satyr halfheartedly tries to resist the nymph’s wiles, entranced by their beauty.

Nymphs are from Greek mythology. They are considered to be minor female deities, and have a duty to protect different elements of nature such as streams, mountains and meadows. The male counterpart for a nymph is a satyr. A satyr is a creature also from Greek mythology having the torso and face of a man, ears and tail of a horse, and feet of a goat. They are known for being lustful and fertile creatures. Bouguereau captures an incredible sense of motion in this painting. One can feel the struggle for the satyr to both resist and enjoy the nymphs’ joyous struggle to pull him in.

Perhaps what is most important to understand from this painting is the word “halfheartedly.” Is the man truly resisting the incitement of the ladies, or only pretending, a form of foreplay, an act of flirting obscuring his real intention of submission?

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
Phychology Today reported in December 2013 the idea that men think about sex every seven seconds is an urban legend. According to the Kinsey Report (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male), 54 percent of men think about sex every day or several times a day, 43 percent a few times a week or a few times a month, and 4 percent less than once a month. Interestingly, it was reported that 19 per cent of women think about sex every day or several times a day, 67 per cent a few times per month or a few times per week and 14 per cent less than once a month. When it comes to number crunching, both sexes are pretty much equal.

Lustful thoughts are a universal human behavioral phenomenon. Aside from the proverbial cold shower there is no way to dispense of them. It is what we do with these thoughts that matters.

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
In the movie Six Days, Seven Nights there is a scene that aptly demonstrates the shared responsibility of promiscuous thoughts. Quinn Harris, played by Harrison Ford, and Robin Monroe, played by Anne Heche, are plane wrecked on an island. Monroe is wearing a top that is a bit too revealing, and now, stranded on an island, the chosen attire for a vacation jaunt is making her feel uncomfortable. The ensuing conversation is very revealing:

Robin Monroe: What are you looking at?
Quinn Harris: Nothing.
Robin Monroe: Something.
Quinn Harris: Nothing.
Robin Monroe: Oh, don't give me that, you were ogling.
Quinn Harris: Ogling? Let me ask you something. When you go into a department store to buy something like that what do you say to the clerk “give me that outfit so no one will look at me?”

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
Engaged in this spiritual warfare is why the secular media could not comprehend the Christian evangelical Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter, in an interview for Playboy magazine (1976), while a candidate for President, said, “I've looked on many women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
The DaVinci Code, written by Dan Brown and published in 2003, was a popular book and even a more popular movie starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. The problem though is that the book tells us very little about Jesus, and a great deal about his possible romantic attachments. Perhaps, could it be that we have a greater fixation on Mary Magdalene than we do on Jesus? It would seem that we cannot even follow a Savoir who is not as equally obsessed with sex as we are.

Billy Graham wrote, “Impurity is one of the most revolting of sins because it twists and distorts one of God’s most precious gifts to man – human love – and drags it down to the level of the beast.”

* * *

Luke 3:17 “chaff”
In 1999 at the "Palazzo della Ragione" artist Mario Donizetti exhibited his paintings in the series on “The seven deadly sins.” Donizetti gave us the following description and painting of lust:

Calm, collected, balanced painting, and pure even when it portrays the sin of Lust. Overall it is arranged like a group sculptured in very audacious partial views of bodies bound together in a sensual tangle of legs. A lost expression of she who is lost in lust, an exclusively carnal pleasure. The snake lurks there greedily. The sexual act, in itself sacred, is thus inserted in the context of evil due to the abuse of those who follow “their appetite like beasts”

* * *

Luke 3:17 “wheat” “chaff”
It always troubled me, as I have listened to literally hundreds and hundreds of sermons in the course of my work, that I never heard a pastor condemn gluttony from the pulpit. Every one of the other six deadly sins have found their place in a rampaging curse from the pulpit, but gluttony always resided silently in the last pew as the visitor who is never introduced. Considering that gluttony is always associated with obesity I labeled this tribe of preachers as lacking moral courage, considering over half their congregation is visibly on the heavy side, most likely including the one standing before them. Who then, would offend the hand that feeds them?

Tony Campolo shared my view. Campolo is a nationally recognized Christian speaker and writer who is a sociology professor at Eastern College, St. Davis, Pennsylvania. Campolo shared my view, that is, until he preached a sermon on gluttony. He then thought otherwise, as I do now. Regarding that pulpit experience Campolo wrote this:

Of the sermons I wished I had never preached, none elicits more regret than a sermon on the subject of gluttony. It was delivered at a Bible conference in Maryland where I regularly speak. As I prepared for this particular occasion, I thought about the fact that we prefer too often to admonish against the sins of those who are not in the audiences and seldom touch upon those sins of which our listeners are most likely to be guilty. I decided to break from that tendency and attack a sin which was all too evident among these otherwise godly people. I decided to preach against overeating. I reasoned that there were not many adulterers, thieves, and liars in the audience; but I knew by the looks of many of them that gluttony was a common sin.

In retrospect, I regret preaching that sermon, not because I believe that sins should not be boldly condemned, but because the public condemnation of gluttony is an unfair and cruel thing to do. The cruelty was not apparent to me at the time. When I preached the sermon, I was convinced that the obesity of those in the congregation was due to a lack of willpower on their part and a decision to let themselves go physically. I figured that most people enjoy eating and that these fat people simply did not see that it was wrong to overdo it. I was unaware back then that most people despise their fatness and suffer emotionally because of their tendency to overeat. I had no understanding of the complex factors contributing to a problem that afflicts so many.

The rotund person, according to Campolo, unlike the one who lusts, has no place to hide in a sanctuary of sinners. And as Campolo further noted, there are many health reasons that cause obesity, therefore removing it from the list of sins to one of understanding and acceptance.

As this writer still weighs the same as when he graduated from high school, and on the high school Marine Corps physical fitness exam ranked first in a graduating class of 527, I could easily be condescending of those who have bulging trousers. That is, until, for a short period of time, I was on a medication that gave me an insatiable appetite and a weight gain that could not be controlled. That did change my perspective – and my wardrobe.

by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: Ascribe to God, O heavenly beings, ascribe glory and strength.
People: Ascribe to God the glory of God’s name; worship God in holy splendor.
Leader: The voice of God is over the waters; the God of glory thunders.
People: The voice of God is powerful; the voice of God is full of majesty.
Leader: May God give strength to the people!
People: May God bless the people with peace!


Leader: The God of abundance calls to us.
People: We hear God’s voice and we respond with joy.  
Leader: God knows us and our needs.
People: We are aware that we are not up to the task of mission.
Leader: God comes to us to meet our needs and to guide us.
People: With God’s help and direction, we will share the Good News.    

Hymns and Songs:
O God, Our Help in Ages Past
UMH: 117
H82: 680           
AAHH: 170
NNBH: 46
NCH: 25
CH: 67
LBW: 3230
ELA: 632
W&P: 84
AMEC: 61
STLT: 281

Great Is Thy Faithfulness
UMH: 140
AAHH: 158
NNBH: 45
NCH: 423
CH: 86
ELA: 733
W&P: 72
AMEC: 84

Hope of the World
UMH: 178
H82: 472
PH: 360
NCH: 46
CH: 538
LBW: 493
W&P: 404

Word of God, Come Down on Earth
UMH: 182
H82: 633
ELA: 510

God Hath Spoken by the Prophets
UMH: 108
LBW: 238           
W&P: 667

When Jesus Came to Jordan
UMH: 252
PH: 72
ELA: 305
W&P: 241

Fill My Cup, Lord
UMH: 641
PH: 350
AAHH: 447
NCH: 351
CCB: 47

Holy Spirit, Truth Divine
UMH: 465
PH: 321
NCH: 63
CH: 241
LBW: 257
ELA: 398

More Precious than Silver
CCB: 25

Our God Reigns
CCB: 33

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who speaks in tones loud and clear:
Grant us the grace to listen for your voice
so that we might be led to life eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


We praise you, O God, because you speak so that we may hear you.  Help us to listen for your voice.  Give us the will to follow you as you lead us to life eternal.  Amen. 

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially our failure to listen for God’s voice.

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned.  We have failed to listen to voice of God’s love calling us.  We have not followed in the ways of life and light.  We are either too proud or too ashamed to seek God’s strength and help.  We are disciples but we are poor disciples of Jesus.  Strengthen us in your Spirit and send us out to be in mission and to find our life in serving you and others. Amen.

Leader: God is calling us and desires to equip us for life and for mission.  Receive from God’s bounty and share it with all. 

Prayers of the People
We praise you, O God, because you are the true light illumining the way to eternal life. 

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned.  We have failed to listen to voice of God’s love calling us.  We have not followed in the ways of life and light.  We are either too proud or too ashamed to seek God’s strength and help.  We are disciples but we are poor disciples of Jesus.  Strengthen us in your Spirit and send us out to be in mission and to find our life in serving you and others.

We thank you for your guidance and for the strength of your love that lifts us up and gives us life.  We thank you for those who have shared your love and joy with us. 

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for all your children in all of creation.  We pray for those who do not know you as the way and the strength for life. 

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity.  Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Talk to the children about taking a trip when you do not know the way to go.  You could show them an atlas, a road map, and an electronic map program.  All give you information to help you get where you want to go.  Talk about how God gives us directions (Bible, sermons, teachings, prayer, etc).  God gives us these because God wants us to come to God.

An Exultation of Larks

by Dean Feldmeyer
Isaiah 43:1-7 / Acts 8:14-17 / Luke 3:15-22

Theme: Corporate-ness. Togetherness.

Overview: The three texts are all set in the context of being or coming together with God, with Jesus, or with each other as people of God. We live in a culture that values independence but scripture reminds us that while independence is nice, we are also called to be there for each other even as God is there for us.

You will need: 
Several pictures of animals in groups along with the collective nouns that are used for these animals. The ones offered below are examples but you can use any that you like. Often, the odder the better works well as kids find these odd names amusing and memorable. These pictures and collectives are readily available from any of them any search engines on the internet.

Good morning, boys and girls…

Do you know what this is? That’s right, it’s an ape/gorilla? Do you know what a group of apes is called? It’s called a Troop. A troop of apes.

Here’s an easy one. Yeah, this is a fish. What’s a group of fish called; do you know? A group of fish is called a School.

Do you know what this is? That’s right, it’s a polar bear. Do you know what a group of polar bears is called?

Ha! Trick question. Polar bears don’t travel in groups. They are solitary animals that stay to themselves. But sometimes a family group of mother and cubs might move around together. Then they would be called a Pack.

How about this one? Yes, it’s a group of cows. Do you know what a group of cows is called? That’s right, it’s called a Herd. Lots of animals are called a herd when they are all together. Can you think of some? Yes, a group of horses is called a herd. Also, buffalo, elephants, deer, giraffes, moose. Sometimes we even refer to a group of people as a herd.

Okay, one last group. These are Canada Geese. A group of geese is called a Gaggle when they are on land. When they are flying together, they called a Skein. (Skane). Some people call them a wedge. See, how they fly in a formation of a wedge or “V.”

Why do you think animals travel in groups – or herds or skeins or whatever we want to call them?

Because it’s safer, yes. A wolf or a wild cat may attack on cow but might think twice about attacking all of them.

Because it’s safer for the young and old, right. They say that buffalo put the very young and the very old that can’t take care of themselves in the middle of the herds so all the other animals can watch over and protect them.

The geese fly in a wedge like this because it allows them to rest. The one in front creates a pocket of air that the ones in back can fly in. Also, they fly in a V formation so they can all see. If they didn’t do that and flew in single file the ones in back wouldn’t be able to see where they are going. And when they fly they all honk real loud to encourage each other. One last thing about the geese: If you look at pictures of them flying in V formation you notice that one side of the V is always longer than the other. Do you know why that is?

Because one side has more geese in it that the other!!!!  (Another trick question. Yuk. Yuk.)

You know, we live in a place and time where it is considered very admirable to be alone and independent and not need the help of others. But the authors of the Bible remind us that none of us can make it through life all the time with no help. We all need help, from time to time, from each other and from God.

Sometimes we all need to form a group and stop and stoop to help each other.

Sometimes we all need to travel in a herd…or a caravan… or whatever you want to call it.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, Thank you for those who help us in our groups. Amen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, January 13, 2019 issue.

Copyright 2019 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.

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John Jamison
They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.  Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. (vv. 16-18)
John Jamison
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.  Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (vv. 50-53)

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Emphasis Preaching Journal

Mark Ellingsen
Frank Ramirez
Bonnie Bates
Bill Thomas
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Frank Ramirez
The resurrection of Jesus takes center stage, rightfully so, in the church calendar. By contrast, Ascension Day often falls by the wayside, unless it happens to fall on a Sunday. It’s something Jesus did, but it’s not necessarily a significant event in the lives of many churches. These three texts, however, illustrate the central importance of this event, which is the capstone of the ministry of Jesus.
Mark Ellingsen
Bonnie Bates
Frank Ramirez
Bill Thomas
Acts 1:1-11
There is still a lot to be in despair about in America. Racism is not gone, as the families who lost loved ones to wanton police shootings continue to mourn. Those who lost jobs, incomes, and businesses in the pandemic continue to suffer and remain in despair. It is all so tragic, as the German-born philosopher Theodor Adono once wrote: “But he who dies in despair has lived his life in vain.” Martin Luther saw this text and its account of the ascension as a time to preach on faith and the comfort from despair that that Word brings:

The Village Shepherd

Janice B. Scott
Many years ago I met a churchwarden who had grown up within a Jewish background but who had converted to Christianity quite late in life. She had had an amazing conversion experience which had affected her deeply and as a result had become an ardent Christian. She was particularly zealous about Christian mission to the Jews, wanting to convert all Jews to Christianity. When I asked whether she thought Jesus was the only way to God, she looked astonished and said yes, of course!


Constance Berg
Brian could feel the heat of anger rising in his neck. His left hand curled into a fist and he hit the palm of his right hand. He felt dizzy as he looked around.

Clothes, towels, and sheets were scattered all over the living room. A glass of orange juice was empty, the contents still dribbling down the side of the coffee table. A towel landed at his feet. His one-year-old looked up at him and giggled, making Brian even more angry.
E. Carver Mcgriff
We Americans have long had a love affair with winners. Successful undertakings of nearly every sort quickly receive the admiration of those around us. As a group, we take great delight in banquets and other ceremonies at which honors are distributed. People who come in second are rarely remembered in our culture. The runner-up usually receives a brief word of recognition and then is quickly forgotten. If you happen to be a sports enthusiast, you'll remember the poor old Buffalo Bills of the NFL.
Paul E. Robinson
How many of you know what BASE jumping is? BASE jumping is the very scary sport of jumping off Buildings, Antennae, Spans, and Earth objects. If you want to do it more than once, you jump with a parachute or perhaps a hang glider. Some of you may have seen examples of this daring sport on television.

An example:
John W. Clarke
Ascension Day is a good time for the Christian community to assess where it has been and where it is going. We need to ask ourselves why we are here and exactly what is it we are supposed to be doing. Our lesson for this day provides us with much needed information on what we should be doing and what our final destination as we travel this road in ministry with Jesus is.
Erskine White
When people are confused or afraid, when they feel that things are out of control, or when they feel helpless to overcome the problems which confront them, they often resort to "pie in the sky" religion. They look for Jesus to come and fix what they can't fix for themselves. They figure that one day, as if by magic, Jesus will make everything right for them in the "sweet bye and bye."


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Not the Hour or the Day
by Peter Andrew Smith
Acts 1:1-11

“God, I know that I’m supposed to have faith and trust,” Paul said softly as he sat on the bench outside of the nursing home. “Yet a part of me wishes you would tell me when.”

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