Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Rainbow Never Runs

A Rainbow Never Runs
Inspired by Gabrielle Jackson's "Rainy Day Blues"

In olden times, in Noah's day
When God did wash the world away
Forty days of rain and then when done
The clouds subsided for the sun.

And then upon the sky he laid
His bow of peace, a sign displayed
The colorful symbol of covenant love
A promise made from heaven above.

That though the rains do pour and fall
Never will a storm consume us all
Instead the spectrum does remind us
That God's light can always find us.

So in my head I know no rainbows come
Until after all the rain is done
But it lately seems the opposite is true
No matter what I say or do

It's like the rain in its constant flow
Has drenched and soaked God's rainbow
And the varied colors have leaked and run
Until they've melded into one.

And wiped the brightness clean away
Leaving only darkish, purplish, gray,
Seeming like no light could ever sever
Through the darkness, no never ever.

On days like these it's hard to hope,
Not to mention, deal, persevere, or cope.
In this darkness I must admit
That I would rather give in and quit.

The light that makes the colors bright
Has always put up quite the fight
But the battle just proved to be too much
For Faith and Hope and Love and such.

And so as these dreary colors rain
I'll open my umbrella again
To try to stay dry until the flood
Covers my life in muck and mud.

And just as I thought my life was done,
There arose the morning sun,
Shining through the clouds to dry
And once again light up the sky.

But before each drop of rain was gone,
There in the shining light of dawn,
A rainbow, once again was laid
Knocking me to my knees I prayed:

"O God, in the midst of all my fear,
When your voice I can't hear clear,
Give me faith that you'll ne'er depart
By writing this vision upon my heart."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Chapter 2: Old and New, part 1"

Chapter 2: Old an New, part 1
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 25, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 2: 1-11
Hosea 2: 1-9

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. 3 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.[1]

So we continue our journey through John's Gospel, and we have finally made it out of Chapter 1 and can look at Chapter 2. So far we have seen John's prologue, introducing us to the Word, that was with God and was God from before the beginning, going on and telling us to "Believe and Receive," for that Word is light and the light of all people, and we've seen John the Baptist introduced, telling us "Behold, the Lamb of God", and then we've seen the recruitment of some the disciples, by simply saying "Come and See." If you take just those four statements alone from Chapter  1, there is a lot that John has built up already. And Jesus really hasn't even done anything yet, that we have seen. All that he has done so far is just simply tell the disciples to Come See, and through his exchange with Nathaniel has shown that he can see, outside of the normal limits of time and distance, and said if you are amazed by that just wait, you will see Heaven Open and angels going up and down, and now in Chapter 2, as they say, it's on.
I decided to make the title for this Sunday, Chapter 2, Old and New, because that is one thing that holds the chapter together, Oldness and Newness, being juxtaposed with each other, again and again, all through two major events: Jesus turning Water into Wine at the Wedding at Cana and Jesus tossing the tables in the temple, both beautiful bountiful bouquets of alliteration, and finally we see some action. Jesus does some stuff. At first I was going to just depict these two stories as separate episodes, but the more I studied this week, and the more I thought about it, the more I noticed that just like much of Chapter 1 seems to be related and connected, so too do these stories from Chapter 2. And although I'm going to take them separately one at a time, this week and next week, I wanted to acknowledge that there is developing here a connected story, and these two events take on much greater meaning when they are seen together. So as we go through the Wedding this week, have the temple in  your mind, and when we go through the temple next week, do your best to remember what we discussed today, but I promise to do my best to review briefly next week as needed. Mostly I want to highlight this connection because I think next week is an important lesson, and this week's does much to put it into the right perspective.
I knew alot about this passage before I started. It is one of the more famous scenes in the Bible, and it is used to teach many many lessons and make a bunch of different points. Quite possibly my favorite, and maybe the first that I remember from my younger days, was that it shows that Jesus was not a prude when it came to having a drink. There's a great song called, "The Lord Loves the Drinking Man," it uses the line, I heard he changed water to wine, anyone who'll do that is a good friend of mine". . .  but though I think it is probably true that Jesus did not have as much trouble with wine as some may believe, I don't think that is the point of this story. Another aspect of the story I also knew was that according to John's Gospel, this is one of the first things that Jesus does. . .and I remembered that Mary, Jesus' mother plays a significant role in the story, getting Jesus to do the miracle, when Jesus didn't really seem want to. But beyond these details I have never really given this story that much thought, nor had I devoted all that much time to studying it. So I did this week and I found so much stuff, a real treasure of different takes and opinions.
One thing that I found that I'm not sure what to think about, but found fascinating was the claim that the numbers given throughout this beginning of John, the days of the week, that if you count them and put them in some kind of order that it corresponds to the days of the creation. The article I read went through it, and made a case for how it all corresponds, and if you look at it most of the big events happen after the seventh days, back at the first, highlighting the "let there be light", they said forecasting the resurrection on Easter. Though it was fascinating to think about, there was too much math involved, and it seemed too much like codes and numerology, which I always tend to be skeptical about, much like statistics, if you try hard enough and have enough creativity you can make the numbers show anything you want. But it was a good explanation for why in a gospel that doesn't seem to have much interest in telling a straight forward chronological historical narrative retelling of the events would include a detail like "3 days later" as this one does.

Another big idea that I came across this week was the dynamic between Jesus and Mary that goes on here. There is no real introduction to Mary in John's Gospel, no Magnificat, no Annunciation Scene with Gabriel, no journey to Bethlehem on the donkey, and no, no room at the end. Instead you have this scene and another at the cross, sandwiching the rest of the story, motherly bookends, and there is something so very real about this encounter at the wedding, in a mother son dynamic. Mary wants Jesus to help, Jesus resists, saying, what is it to us, and it's not my time yet, but Mary is sure that Jesus will do what he can. Without him even saying yes, she goes ahead and tells the servants, to "do whatever he tells you" and so Jesus ends up performing the miracle. This initial miracle of Jesus, this sign is paired with the heart wrenching vision of Mary watching her son going to die, "Woman behold your son. . .", where Jesus makes this disciple whom he loved a real member of his family. It is all powerful stuff.
But the most important and interesting aspect of this story that I found in my research was, like I said the connection of Old and New, and how it corresponds to the second half of this chapter becausein my research I came across some interesting facts about the ritual purification that this story talks about, which is what the water was originally for, and that changing it into wine had all kinds of symbolic meanings about purity, and foreshadowing. . . yes my favorite thing. . . why is it that everything in literature is foreshadowing?. . . Of course there is connection here to baptism and communion, and then also more foreshadowing, this time beyond communion,  crucifixion, the resurrection to the marriage supper of the Lamb. All of that was there, but also there is the imagery of a new covenant being set, and that is what I found most intriguing.
Obviously a wedding is a great setting for covenant imagery. Two people are coming together and pledging their lives to each other in love and service to one another. They are promising their mutual belonging and forsaking all others. So the scene is ripe for the beginning of a new covenant one that involves making a commitment to Christ. . . again we remember the importance of Believing and Receiving here in John's Gospel. So with the beginning of Jesus' ministry here at this wedding we see the beginning of more than miracles but as relationship. Jesus in this very public way invites us in, because we get to see, we've come and now we see, and Jesus at once delivers, in a very simple and symbolic way turning water into wine. One of the resources I've been using is  N.T. Wright's Study Questions, and he says that reading the gospel of John is like going on a treasure hunt, and that John places clue after clue, each telling us exactly who Jesus is, and this is the first clue, they are clues, but John calls them signs. . . and with each sign, the refrain occurs: "he did this sign, and the disciples believed." Again and again, these signs are clues letting the followers of Jesus come to know, and we the reader with them.
But it's not just that Jesus is making miracles, instead these miracles if looked into with more depth become more than just, he is a magic man, but that he is God, he is setting forth new covenant in himself, and he is inviting us to be a part of it. So where is this covenant imagery? One of the major metaphors used for the covenant relationship between God and the Chosen People of Israelites is that of Husband and Wife. God, the Husband has been faithful, but again and again the Israelites stray from the covenant relationship, and instead of forsaking all others fall into idolatry with the Baals. And so here, at this wedding, Jesus is renewing, making a new covenant. . . one sealed in his blood. It begins with water and it is then sealed in his blood, the very blood we take and drink in his remembrance. There is a sense that this water that was used for the ritual of purification according to the old Jewish Rituals is being replaced by the blood of the cross, that purifies, washing away our sins, and symbolically through the wine of communion. I don't know about you, but I found that imagery, that metaphor, that invitation of truth so interesting, so compelling, and so heart warming, and hope fulfilling. I've always been captivated by poetic truth coming through like that and this was really cool, much more than just Jesus filling a celebration with a little more spirit, but Jesus filling this world with a so much more hope, beyond what we had every expected, what people had expected. Because this new covenant surpasses the old. Look again at the details of the story, the wine that Jesus makes from the water is the best wine ever tasted, so much so that the people wonder what kind of a host saves the best for last, rather than blowing it all early. God is changing the rules, making new rules, a new path, a new way, a new truth, and a new life. One beyond comprehension.
There is one thing that we miss often when we study a passage so deeply that we get caught up in the weeds, we get so focused on the trees that we miss the forest. So I want to close this morning not thinking about symbols and poetic details, and foreshadowing, and just put ourselves at the wedding. Kahlil Gibran wrote a series of Prose Poems about encounters with Jesus in Gospel story. He writes imaginative fiction based from the characters point of view in the ancient tradition of Midrash. He wrote one on this scene from the perspective of the Bride. . . often fiction invites us in to the experiential truth we can miss. Here it is "Rafca: The Bride of Cana"
This happened before He was known to the people.
I was in my mother's garden tending the rose-bushes, when He stopped at our gate.
And He said, "I am thirsty. Will you give me water from your well?"
And I ran and brought the silver cup, and filled it with water; and I poured into it a few drops from the jasmine vial.
And He drank deep and was pleased.
Then He looked into my eyes and said, "My blessing shall be upon you."
When He said that I felt as it were a gust of wind rushing through my body. And I was no longer shy; and I said, "Sir, I am betrothed to a man of Cana in Galilee. And I shall be married on the fourth day of the coming week. Will you not come to my wedding and grace my marriage with your presence?"
And He answered, "I will come, my child."
Mind you, He said, "My child," yet He was but a youth, and I was nearly twenty.
Then He walked on down the road.
And I stood at the gate of our garden until my mother called me into the house.
On the fourth day of the following week I was taken to the house of my bridegroom and given in marriage.
And Jesus came, and with Him His mother and His brother James.
And they sat around the wedding-board with our guests whilst my maiden comrades sang the wedding-songs of Solomon the King. And Jesus ate our food and drank our wine and smiled upon me and upon the others.
And He heeded all the songs of the lover bringing his beloved into his tent; and of the young vineyard-keeper who loved the daughter of the lord of the vineyard and led her to his mother's house; and of the prince who met the beggar maiden and bore her to his realm and crowned her with the crown of his fathers.
And it seemed as if He were listening to yet other songs also, which I could not hear.
At sundown the father of my bridegroom came to the mother of Jesus and whispered saying, "We have no more wine for our guests. And the day is not yet over."
And Jesus heard the whispering, and He said, "The cup bearer knows that there is still more wine."
And so it was indeed—and as long as the guests remained there was fine wine for all who would drink.
Presently Jesus began to speak with us. He spoke of the wonders of earth and heaven; of sky flowers that bloom when night is upon the earth, and of earth flowers that blossom when the day hides the stars.
And He told us stories and parables, and His voice enchanted us so that we gazed upon Him as if seeing visions, and we forgot the cup and the plate.
And as I listened to Him it seemed as if I were in a land distant and unknown.
After a while one of the guests said to the father of my bridegroom, "You have kept the best wine till the end of the feast. Other hosts do not so."
And all believed that Jesus had wrought a miracle, that they should have more wine and better at the end of the wedding-feast than at the beginning.
I too thought that Jesus had poured the wine, but I was not astonished; for in His voice I had already listened to miracles.
And afterwards indeed, His voice remained close to my heart, even until I had been delivered of my first-born child.
And now even to this day in our village and in the villages near by, the word of our guest is still remembered. And they say, "The spirit of Jesus of Nazareth is the best and the oldest wine."[2]

Yes the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth is the best and oldest wine, because he is the wine that makes all things new, even that which is Old. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 2:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2] “Son of Man” by Kahlil Gibran. The Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran. Everyman’s Library. IBSN :978-0-307-26707-8

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Come and See

Come and See
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 18, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 1: 35-51
Genesis 28: 10-17

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak, and followed him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Beth-saida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathana-el, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathana-el said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathana-el coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” 48 Nathana-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathana-el answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” [1]

Call stories are always my favorite stories because they preach so well.  They seem to always find us where ever we are, and speak to us because they relate to us. Call stories are about regular people, doing regular stuff, and then all of a sudden something very irregular comes in. And there is God calling you to service. There is Jesus calling you to become a disciple, to follow, or in this case to Come and See. This week we take a look at the call of the disciples according to John's gospel. It is interesting because like other aspects in John's gospel, as we have seen, it is different from the other Gospels. There aren't any fish, no full nets, no I'll make you fishers of men. Instead we get two different descriptions that are very much related.
In the first grouping, we get a little bit of background that the others don't give, that some of the disciples of Jesus had been disciples of John the Baptist first. We get told that there were two followers of John, who heard him say, "Behold the Lamb of God." And so these two guys having heard that, decide to check out Jesus, since it was early in the day, they check him out hanging with him for the afternoon and decide to follow. One of those disciples is named.  . . Andrew, and the other is not named. It is noteworthy that one is named and the other isn't. . . what do you think? Who do you think this unnamed disciple could be? . . . . . .  Right. . . Most people suspect that it is Judas, and he isn't named because they didn't want to acknowledge him. But the other one, Andrew, is Simon's brother, who would later be called Peter, actually here in this story at first he is given the name, well Cephas. . . and it is Andrew that tells him that they have found the Messiah. So this one doesn't have the details around Peter being the one to first claim that Jesus was the Messiah. . . but again John's Gospel doesn't wait to say stuff like that, making sure that the claim of exactly who Jesus is, who we are supposed to believe and receive is already here right up front from the very beginning. So those are some of the details from the first half of our reading.
The second half covers the calling of Nathanael. It just so happens that Nathanael is from a town outside of Nazareth, Bethsaida. And it is Phillip that comes to him and says. . . Hey we found the Messiah, come with us. He's from Nazareth it is great. . . and Nathanael, famously says "Nazareth. . . really. . . what good could come from Nazareth?" It would be like someone in Louisa wondering if anything good could come from Orange, or a UVA grad wondering if anything good could come from Blacksburg, and myself I would have trouble believing that anything good could ever come from Randolph Macon in Ashland. . . But like the others Nathanael is convinced by Jesus to follow. And this is what drew me to this. It jumped right out at me in my first reading of it. Notice what Jesus says to all of these guys. He says, "Hey come see."  He doesn't argue, he doesn't entice, he doesn't really even preach, he just says, hey follow, come and see what you will see.
There are literally 13 references to sight in this passage alone. There is "Behold," twice, then look a bunch of times, see a bunch of times, and saw a bunch of times. So it really jumped out at me. . . Jesus asked these guys to come see, and they saw, and seeing was believing for them. What did they see? Wouldn't you like to know? And then was it easy to see? If it was easy to see, why did only a small number actually see? And if we were there would we have seen? These are the questions that were going through my head all week. For here it is John's gospel invites us to come and see, just like the other gospels invite us to become fishers of men.
In the middle of the week, my friend sent me a copy of his devotional reading from the day, and it was all about seeing. He said that he sent it to me because it reminded him of my prayer for illumination that I always say before my sermons. It said: "Love is alot of things but blind is not one of them" it was all about how visible love is. He told me that it reminded my of my Prayer for Illumination, asking for help to see with God's eyes. The devotion writer, puts  "O, that I may see as love sees, all things in their true shapes, all life in its highest possibility. that I may see what beauty there is in this soiled world. That my senses would hunger as much for justice and right proportions of things. Love, be my vision, my eyes, my light, till all things are clear, till Christ be revealed. In Christ, my eyes, my light, my blindness, my sight. Amen."[2] I couldn't help but think that perhaps love is the "come and see," that love is instantly recognizable, and also is something that once invited into its world, it immediately drags you in and that you want very much to be a part of it.
And that got me thinking because just that day I was working with a kid on a paper for my class. He was writing a paper on the Axial Age and how people in different cultures, as shown by the texts he was writing about, started a trend towards believing in transcendent truth rather than truth found in the old polytheistic rituals. The text that he was working on all had to do with being able to look within yourself. To Look with in to the truth that lies within. . . or the other text had to do with having enough perspective to  be able to see how the truth was in the connections between things, that if you were focused on one thing, you would miss it, but if you could stand back far enough to see how one issue was connected and related to others, that you could begin to know that there is only one truth and that it is in everything. I couldn't help but see all the parallels. Here I was trying to teach a kid to write, showing people how to see the text. . . that the text was all about seeing the truth. . . that his problem is that he doesn't really see the abilitity in himself enough to have confidence in himself. He doesn't have confidence in  himself because he has never written all that well before. So it is a vicious cycle, and if he could just break outside of it I could get somewhere. If I could just get him to see. . . but how.
That got me thinking what are all the things that get in the way of us seeing Christ, seeing Christ in a drop everything you have, go follow, proclaim he's the messiah, and then run and tell everyone else to come and see kind of way. What are the things that keep us from truly seeing? It may be that we don't go. . . Christ says come and see, and we don't go, so we don't see. Maybe we don't go because we don't know where to go, maybe we have too much going on to go, maybe we are better off, or think we are better off not going to see. It's possible that we do go, that we try very hard to see, but we just haven't seen. Maybe there are things in our heads that we have stored up that keep us from seeing. Maybe it is a confidence thing like my student. Maybe it is guilt, maybe it is a misconception about who Jesus is and what he is looking for, maybe it is a preconceived notion about where Jesus would be, and what he is showing us. Nathanael said that Jesus was from Nazareth, and was so sure that nothing of any value could come from a place like Nazareth. Maybe we have preconceived notions about the truth, maybe we prejudge situations and that precludes us from being able to come and to see.
But the amazing thing is there are no barriers to seeing Jesus. He invites and we go. Everyone invited in this passage to come see, comes and sees. They all proclaim. And even when they think they have seen it there is more. The Nathanael story is a great example. Nathanael is ready to follow Jesus simply because Jesus could tell him who he was and where he was sitting just a few moments before. It is so great what Jesus tells him. . . if that amazes you, just wait for what you are going to see next. I will show  you the heavens and the earth open with Angels ascending and descinding.. . very much akin to the Jacob's ladder passage we read this morning from the Old Testament. . . . the thing that amazes me though, and the thing I'd really like to take away from this is, even us, even us who think we have already done our come and see, even if we've already been able to come and see Jesus, and we are all here, we've all decided at some point in our life to be here, to follow to try. . . even so, there is more to be seen. That coming and seeing Jesus seems to be an ongoing proposition. It suggests that at first sight we will be amazed enough to follow, but as the relationship grows, as our experience grows, the sheer awe and wonder of what we see with Jesus will not go away. Bold promises. . . aren't they.
I also came across in my study for this week, an article that was taking a look at this passage, and how it relates to Evangelism, and spreading the word about who Christ is. What the disciples and we are all eventually called to do. His main point was how often in our zeal to spread the truth of Christianity, we fail by trying to do more than the simple invitation shown here. That Jesus simply says, "Come and See," but we tend to argue, and prove, and come up with the best air tight case for the truth of Jesus, and in doing so we actually blind the other person the truth. That by seeking so hard to prove, we end up shadowing what would otherwise be very clear, and that rather then simply letting our love show the way to Christ, we try the much shorter and easier road of trying to explain it. As a teacher of writing I don't know how many times I have told my students that showing is always better than telling, but hadn't made the connection to this "come and see," until now. I did preach on a similar subject a few years ago around Easter, when I preached the sermon, "Jesus on Trial," suggesting that if Jesus doesn't defend himself with words, why would we think that our words could convince people. If it is the cross that truly saves, why would we think that anything less could take the place of the Cross. I'm not sure if I'm going to go all in, in believing that everything Christians do today muddies the picture, but I think there is something to the critique. It is much easier to write a book than it is to show love in your life, to simply say, hey come and see what Christ is doing in the world, come and see what Christ is doing in our church, come and see what Christ is doing in our lives. And it is easier to talk about it and write a book than it is to take up your own cross. It certainly would be easier to write a book, and don't forget this is all coming from someone who just wrote a book. . . we are all in need.
Let us pray. . . Almighty God, help us to see, help us to accept the invitation, help us to actually go where you lead, and see what you would have us to see. Let us be strong enough in our faith that we can also simply invite others to do the same, knowing that seeing love is enough to kindle hearts to become loving disciples, through Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 1:35). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2] Teems, David. "January 14th: "Love is a lot of Things but Blind Ain't One of Them." To Love is Christ: 365 Devotions. ©2004 Elm Hill Books, Nashville, TN. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

To Dream, To Sleep. . .

To Dream, To Sleep. . . 
For Kelsey

It’s hard to think of something sweet
When all is bitter and sour.
The sad songs shuffle on repeat;
Each minute seems an hour.

The sleep, you wish, would somehow come,
But your eyes, they fear to close,
For into dreams, you’d then succumb,
And of what, God only knows.

With thoughts like these inside your head,
You fear to dare to dream,
And so awake, you lie instead
In silence’s deafening scream.

But like a thief, the sleep breaks in,
Its deep surprising rest,
And as every day, this day begins
With one new hope at best.

You think perhaps that yesterday
A dream was all it was,
That with this rising sun, you pray,
Death never really does.

It doesn’t come; it wouldn’t take
My mother, no not now,
And that perhaps just for my sake
She’d still be here somehow.

And then comes creeping into your mind
The sweetest thought of all,
And joy, at peace, at once you find
From just this simple call:

“Yours is the dream, your mom’s awake,
And you are there asleep,
And though from you, her, I did take,
Always this blessing keep.

That one day you will rise and see
Your own true morning sun,
And there, you, she, and I will be
When your sleep on earth is done.

Fear not the dreams that fill your eyes,
Instead look through your heart.
For nothing there ever dies,
Nor is it torn apart.


"Throughout the long night a man wept 
At the bedside of a sick man.
When day dawned the visitor was dead—
And the patient was alive" 
                                     ~ Saadi

"To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,"  
                                      ~ Hamlet

Sunday, January 11, 2015

And the Voice Says. . .

And the Voice Says. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 11, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 1: 19-28
Isaiah 40: 6-11

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”g 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,h nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

So as we continue our journey through the Gospel of John, we leave behind what most people consider to be the prologue and start into the narrative of Jesus. . .  finally, because it was tough to preach the prologue. It seemed like it would have been better with a chalk board, teacher style , going through the introduction and talking through the key terms of the chapter. I'm not sure how well word descriptions work without the visual of seeing them too. Vocabulary is important, but like they say the dictionary ain't got a whole lot of plot. . . So now we get to start in with the story, but not really the story, this John Evangelist isn't much of a story teller, like his other three counterparts are,  but at least we now get a character from the story--John the Baptist. But in John's Gospel unlike the other three JTB isn't doing anything, he's just talking. . . . go figure.
I know last week I asked everyone to try, as we go through this gospel to try to clear our heads of all the outside stuff, but here a week later I already want to break that rule. Mostly because here we have John the Baptist, and he's a major character, actually doing stuff in the other gospels. And the thing he is most famous for doing is actually baptizing Jesus. All of the other gospels depict that event, and today is the day in the church calendar that celebrates that event. But John, the evangelist John doesn't. We don't get much about who this John is, except that he was sent by God, his name is John, and he wasn't the light, but simply sent to preach about the light. We get all that in the prologue.
Now, think for just a moment. You have a book, a gospel, with John's name on it, and then the first person it talks about is a John. . . what would you think and assume, coming on this the first time. . . especially in the Bible, where the tradition is to lump all people with the same name as the same person. . .  especially John's, where you have a gospel, three letters, and Revelation written by John. . . and here is a John, and there is an apostle John, and there is debate all over the place as to exactly who John, the gospel writer is exactly. . . . right, so maybe this Gospel includes the writer as this character. We wouldn't know who this was if it wasn't for its context else where. Maybe this isn't John the Baptist, who baptized and was the cousin of Jesus, maybe it's the Evangelist talking about himself. . . perhaps, but then we look deeper at our reading for today, and it turns out that this John has been baptizing, it doesn't say he baptized Jesus, but he has been baptizing. . . and in this encounter, some Jewish leaders come to John and they ask him, Who are you? Why do  you do what you do? And it is John's answer that is the only specific thing about John the Baptist that John's gospel includes. It doesn't include John Baptizing Jesus, nor his death at the hands of Herod. . . just here with this question. . . Who are you John the Baptist? Are you Elijah, are you the prophet?
It would seem like identities are important in John's Gospel... or at least the questions are asked quite often. Who is this, who is that? but it really seems that no answers are often given save one. The answer to the identity questions that keep coming up in this gospel is always Jesus, it would seem that no one else is as important to figure out. The gospel writer seems to hide in mystery, and we talk more later about who he may just be. . . and though the disciples are named and some of the characters are named all signs seem to point to Jesus. . . and Jesus talks about himself quite often throughout this gospels, whereas in the others he rarely does. And so all these Jewish leaders come to John and they ask him, who are you? and John answers by saying who he isn't. . . I am not the Messiah. . . and so they go further . . . Are you Elijah? that Old Testament Prophet whose body was whisked away, to come again another time. No I am not Elijah. Are you the Prophet? No. . . and the Priests and Levites get angry, and they spill the beans a little bit, saying, tell us because the people who sent us want to know. . .  there is an admission there. . . its not just them who want to know but more, there are some unnamed people interested in finding out more information here. There is something more going on here than just innocent questions. . . and then John gives his answer, quoting the prophet Isaiah directly, and even giving Isaiah credit for the phrase: I am "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the paths."
It is a famous line. All the gospels include it when describing John the Baptist. It is a perfect description of a prophet. Because prophets are often all alone. They are the only ones proclaiming their message, and often a prophetic message is one that alienates the messenger. They are a lone voice, and a voice that most people do not want to hear because the message typically challenges the status quo. Prophets do that, they speak the message of God, and the message of God is critical of the world. . . thus the need for the message. So here is John out, a voice crying in the wilderness, in the typical traditional mode, and it has caused enough of a stir that people, powerful people in Jerusalem have come asking questions. Who are you, what are you doing. . . and remember John's message is to Repent, for the kingdom is near, repent for the Messiah is coming, or in this case, I baptize with water, but the one who is coming after me is much much more.
This morning we read in the Old Testament Lesson, what the voice crying in the wilderness from Isaiah said when it spoke. I want to take a deeper look at that now because this is what I want us to think about, what John is evoking when he says he is a voice crying in the wilderness, because it is a message of promise from God, and it puts Jesus into perspective, for that is what John the Baptist is about.
40     Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2     Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3     A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4     Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5     Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6     A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7     The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8     The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9     Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;a
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,b
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10     See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11     He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
12     Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13     Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counselor has instructed him?
14     Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15     Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales;
see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
16     Lebanon would not provide fuel enough,
nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering.
17     All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
18     To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
19     An idol? —A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
20     As a gift one chooses mulberry woodc
—wood that will not rot—
then seeks out a skilled artisan
to set up an image that will not topple.
21     Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22     It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23     who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
24     Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
25     To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26     Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
27     Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28     Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29     He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30     Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31     but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
It is quite a message, and John brings all this up when he alludes to Isaiah. I teach English, as you all know, and I love poetry, my favorite device in poetry is called an allusion. It is when you mention or quote from another work, the idea is that you bring all of that other work into your own by mentioning it. There is always the danger that the people reading the work won’t know what the allusion is or misinterpret it. . . that is always a possibility, and it seems to be the case with Jesus, too. . . which is why he says so often, “Those who have ears to hear.” An allusion is what John does here so masterfully, and I mean the Gospel Writer John. He brings all of this into context and then has John the Baptist say who Jesus is. He doesn't show the Baptism scene, he just describes it, and does so after making this allusion. We know exactly what Isaiah’s voice crying in the wilderness says, is John the Baptists message the same. See for yourself, He says in the next passage:
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”i
Yes identity is important in John's Gospel, and John wastes no time in declaring exactly and definitively exactly who Jesus is. Identity is important, why, because last week we talked about believing and receiving. John wants to create a picture right off the bat to let us all know exactly what that means.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:19-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Is 40:1-31). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 1:29-34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.