Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Dare to Pray

Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-18, 21-22
January 10, 2016
© 2016

In 313CE the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have converted from paganism to Christianity, and in 346 CE he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However sincere he may or may not have been, he saw Christianity through the lens of empire building. He had his soldiers “baptized” by marching his army along a river as priests used tree branches to fling water over them, so they were now officially Christians. In that atmosphere, the spiritual fervor and strength of the Church declined precipitously. In response, a revival movement began, but they had no illusions that the Empire could ever nurture authentic spiritual vitality. Many people with spiritual passion withdrew to desert communities where they not only pursued their own spiritual lives, but also instructed and encouraged spiritually alert pilgrims who came seeking advice. We know them today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas). They left us both their own writings as well as legends, some of which seem rather fantastic but often point to an important spiritual truth. Abbas Lot and Joseph is one of my favorites.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I  fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 103)
Whatever Abba Lot saw when Abba Joseph lifted his flaming hands, it was a sign that God was present with him in a remarkably immediate way. Throughout the Bible fire is a sign of God’s presence, from Moses’ burning bush to the tongues of fire at Pentecost. This week you might want to think about how often the image of fire in the Bible connects prayer and the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 1:14 says that the Holy Spirit is God’s pledge of our inheritance of redemption. The idea is repeated in Ephesians 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5. Having the Holy Spirit living in us now is God’s pledge we’ll be in God’s direct presence in the resurrection to eternal life.
Like Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, I aspire to become spiritually all flame. For me, I understand that as a prayer life of total intimacy with Jesus. I encourage you to think about your spiritual dreams and aspirations during these days of seeking a new pastor for your future.
Luke gives more emphasis to the Holy Spirit and prayer in Jesus life than the other Gospels. The account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:15-18, 21-22 introduces Jesus ministry with high priority on the Holy Spirit and prayer.
As you listen, remember that Luke is not presenting systematic, abstract theology but is describing the free work of a divine person. In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can mean breath, wind and spirit, which the New Testament writers often use in plays on words that we miss in English. John 3:8 gives us a feel for this when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John the Baptist’s preaching attracted a large following.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17His 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.” So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.
So Luke makes a very specific point that Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. George Hendry taught theology at Princeton Seminary for 24 years. “To take the measure of other theologians, he would read what they had to say about prayer. If a theologian took prayer seriously, Hendry took that theologian seriously. ‘Prayer is the life line of theology,’ Hendry said.” (Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 8)
Luke 11:13 concludes Jesus’ teaching on prayer that is close to what Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount, with a very Lucian emphasis on the Holy Spirit. “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more with the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Would you like the Holy Spirit to be more active in you? Jesus says, “Go ahead and ask! The Father will joyfully give you the Spirit.”
Acts 8 says that Peter and John prayed that the new Samaritan disciples would receive the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the Church was still very young, and things are just starting to unfold and not make sweeping principles out of their experiences. I am sure we can recognize in those new Samaritan disciples our own experience of not being aware of the Holy Spirit. I would also conclude that praying for the Holy Spirit to be present and active is not just acceptable but good.
During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.
When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Our prayers may be inadequate but Romans 8:23 assures us that “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So the Holy Spirit recasts our prayers to be in congruent harmony with the will of the Father.
A central significance of baptism is the cleansing of water that assures us that Jesus has washed our sin away. Fire also purifies. Chaff burning fire may not sound like “good news,” but deep inside we all long to be rid of spiritual contaminants. Getting pure may not be fun, but being pure is wonderful! So pray that the Spirit will purify you.
 When Jesus was baptized, he identified himself with us – broken, sinful humans. When we are baptized, we identify with Jesus, the beloved Son well pleasing to the Father. As we pray, the Holy Spirit sharpens our awareness of the presence of God in the ordinariness of our lives.
Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus, not as a super hero with super powers, but as a human totally empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ insights into people were from sensitivity to the Spirit. Jesus got his direction from the promptings of the Spirit. Jesus did his miracles by the release of the Spirit. When you pray expect to be nudged, sometimes without being fully aware at the time, toward people and situations in which you can represent the grace of Christ. During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.

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