Sheltered in Place (A Sermon)

This sermon was preached online to the virtually gathered congregation of Paris Presbyterian Church on April 19th, 2020 – the Second Sunday of Easter and Sixth Week of “Coronatide.”

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

John 20:19–29 (NIV)

Today is the Second Sunday of the Easter season, according to the church calendar. In the Anglican Communion they call this day “Low Sunday,” the meaning of which would be apparent to us in a normal year. When our calendar runs as usual, the Sunday after Easter is a time of moderate disappointment as the excitement of the Resurrection wears off. The pews, after the crowds witnessing to the Resurrection, seem emptier than usual.

This year, we are operating according to a different calendar. Today doesn’t really feel like the Sunday after Easter—it feels like another Sunday in a never-ending Lent. According to our 2020 church calendar of necessity, today is the Sixth Sunday of Corona-tide. It is the sixth week that we have been unable to worship within the usual four walls and have instead, largely, been confined to the four walls of our residence.

We are a displaced and scattered people. And it may feel as if everything is against us. Nothing is going according to plan. The calendars are cleared with no idea of when it will be safe to try and fill them again. We long for something to do and some place to go. Who would have thought, just a few months ago, that the closest thing to an adventure we would have in these weeks is a trip to the grocery store.

Let’s admit it—we are grieving.

When we first heard about the threat posed by Coronavirus to public health, and our regular patterns of life, most of us were in denial. Sure, there were some who confronted reality much earlier. My brother, for one, seemed to know early on how bad this threat was. But the rest of us shrugged things off as a problem in China that wouldn’t have much effect on us. We thought, perhaps, the situation was an overblown response to something no more harmful than the seasonal flu.

All that has changed. Coworkers, friends, and family members have been tested for the virus. We have wondered what it might mean if the test came back positive, especially if there are other risk factors present. We wonder if we might have the virus too, lying dormant for now. Is our cough just a cough?

Even if we haven’t yet been confronted with the health threat posed by COVID-19, by the grace of God, we are all aware how the necessity for social distancing has brought our economy screeching to a halt. There may be a silver lining for some of us—I, for one, have found my expenses greatly reduced by having nowhere to go and nothing to do. But for others, including members of our congregation, this economy of the bare necessities has plunged them into the unemployment system. Where will the money come from for rent, food, and other basic needs?

Even if we haven’t lost our jobs, we have lost some of our hopes and dreams—or at least seen them delayed. High School and College students now grieve the loss of many of the activities and experiences that made the schoolwork bearable. Many have lost their senior year.

Not being able to deny the challenging reality posed by Coronavirus any longer, we feel a tinge of anger arising out of our grief. We may direct our anger in political directions: at the President or “Republicans” or “Democrats.” Our anger may show itself, in moments of weakness, in an outburst against a friend or family member. We may even take our anger out on God, as Job once did in the Old Testament or even as Jesus, quoting Psalm 22, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many of us, as we approached Easter, held out hope that we might still be able to worship together! We bargained with God, with our civil leaders, with the virus itself: perhaps, if we do what we are told, the threat will leave us. Maybe, if we have faith, we will be able to celebrate Easter together with churches packed to the brim in a way they have never been before.

Now on the Sixth Sunday of Corona Time, having tried to muster up the spirit of Easter Resurrection in our hearts with varying degrees of success, it is normal, perhaps even healthy to fall into the fourth stage of grief: depression.

The adrenaline of problem solving has worn off and now we’re overwhelmed by the prospect of continuing on the present course. Our online meetings and schooling and even ways of doing church are challenging us and stripping us of joy.

Maybe through this path of grief and our current loss of joy we will come to a new, stable and safe place—a “new normal” of acceptance. Most of us, myself included, are still just looking for a way out of our pandemic struggle into “business as usual.” We’re buying our time by watching TV and movies and falling into the endless scroll of Facebook.


As we participate in this online service of worship, longing and hoping for God to show up and speak some word of grace into Corona Time, we return to a, likely familiar, story from John’s Gospel. It’s a story that I think we can understand this year in a way we never have before.

After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples returned to the only safe place they had left—the Upper Room, where Jesus had gathered with them around the table for the Passover. Like the Hebrew slaves preparing to leave their captivity in Egypt on the first Passover, the disciples were locked in that room, knowing that certain death lay outside that place of safety.

On that first Passover, the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb on the doorpost protected those hidden inside from the plague of death that was about to spread through Egypt. For these disciples, the Upper Room protected them from those who had put Jesus to death and were looking to kill any who were associated with him.

The disciples were once full of hope and expectation. Jesus had transformed their lives. He had given them a purpose.

Jesus had called the twelve out of their “normal” lives as fishermen, merchants, and tax collectors—they left willingly, anticipating that the world was about to change for the better, and they could get in on the ground floor.

They dreamed that they could be somebody.

This Jesus fellow called himself the Son of God, and such a one could take them places. Jesus wouldn’t just make their ordinary vocation more profitable, as he had done by miraculously improving Peter’s fishing skills. Jesus talked about a new Kingdom where he would be King over all. With that new Kingdom would come all sorts of opportunities.

But with Jesus, it doesn’t work out the way the disciples had hoped. Not only do the disciples have to grapple with the defeat of their movement, but their leader is dead.

Like us, they went through the stages of grief. At first, when Jesus started to speak of his impending death, the disciples were in denial. Peter had spoken up and utterly rejected the idea that Jesus would die.

As the disciples began to realize that Jesus was not planning to overtake the Kingdom of Rome, that he had no plans to establish a new earthly government with key roles for his disciples, they got angry. The anger that arose from Judas’ grief led him to betray Jesus to the authorities. Peter’s anger led him to cut off the ear of Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. In that Upper Room after the crucifixion, I’m sure there was plenty of anger to go around: anger at Judas for betraying them, anger at Jesus for letting them down, anger at each other and even themselves for the ways they had failed.

The disciples were likely bargaining in their grief, “if only I had not failed him. If only we had responded differently. If only this whole crucifixion business could be undone.”

The women who had gone to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, were accused by the men of living in denial. They had reported to them that the tomb was empty, but the men knew that was more likely bad news than it was a sign that Jesus had defeated death. Someone probably just stole his body to cause more trouble. Luke’s Gospel tells us the men did not believe the women’s report, “because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

As night fell on that first day of the week, I imagine the disciples, like many of us, were falling into a situational depression. Darkness covered them. The doors were locked in fear. There was nothing they could do, nothing to distract them from the sinking feeling of despair.

All they have is their grief of their lost hope that “Jesus was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

This was the condition of the disciples on that first Easter, not all that different from where we find ourselves today in the shadow of the Coronavirus.


It is amidst these grief-stricken men, hiding in fear, that good news comes again. In the locked room, protected from the death that threatened them on the other side of the door, Jesus appeared among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.”

Grace­—unmerited love and comfort—fills that Upper Room. The promise of the Spirit’s coming among the disciples is fulfilled (John 14:15).

Jesus had told them the truth about what was going to happen the whole time. But Jesus does not shame them or stir up feelings of guilt. He knew that the disciples had hoped for the wrong things the whole time, fame and power.

But through the grief—not in spite of it—the disciples are forced to empty themselves of all their expectations and rely on the promises of their savior.

Through the grief, the disciples were given “peace.”

We sometimes imagine that after Jesus appears to the disciples in his resurrected glory, everything was resolved. That everything went back to normal. But that’s not the case at all. There was no normal left to which they could go.

Fast forward a week after the first Resurrection appearance and things are roughly the same as they were on the first day. The doors are still shut. The disciples are still in that Upper Room, sheltered in place. The only difference is that Thomas is with them.

Why wasn’t Thomas there the first time? I think Thomas had decided not to shelter in place with the rest of the disciples because he was fearless. He, after all, was the one who in John 11:16 said confidently to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go with Jesus, that we might die with him.” Thomas was prepared to die, to be a martyr, if that’s what the situation required. You would think that his fearlessness would be rewarded.

But it turns out that Thomas missed out. Thomas, in denying his grief, in having gone out while the rest of his brothers where hiding out in the upper room, in trying to do something, had missed a sighting of Jesus.

Thomas, like us, was restless. He wanted to leave the confines of the Upper Room, so he did. And so, he initially missed the grace of Jesus’ presence. It was while sheltered in place that all eleven of those who remained saw the glory of the resurrection and received the peace of Christ.


Sitting at home is hard. We are an active church. We long to do something. And in many ways, we continue to do good in the ways available to us.

But what if, like Thomas, our desire to go and do can actually distract us from the place where Jesus Christ is coming to meet us? What if Jesus means to appear to us in powerful ways inside of the four walls of our upper room?

In the history of the church, even and especially during times of the church’s strength and success, God has called men and women to take time apart in the quiet stillness to seek his grace.

In the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, there was a significant movement out to the desert of Egypt to seek God, just as Christianity was being legalized. They sought to escape the temptations of worldly success and hold onto the spiritual strength that comes through simplicity and solitude. In a world that told them they could be someone special, that the marketplace could define them, they decided to renounce the world to find God in solitude.

These monks, known as the Desert Fathers, recorded many sayings as they provided spiritual wisdom to their younger members and those who came to them seeking insight. These sayings might help us to experience the grace and work of God in our sheltered times.

We might feel right now as if we are a fish out of water, away from the things that give us life, but Antony, known as the Father of All Monks said, “Fish die if they stay on dry land, likewise the monk cannot survive outside his cell.”

Similarly, Abba Moses was known to tell other monks, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

What does this “cell,” this confinement, have to teach us if we resist the urge to flee it or be distracted from it? What if this time staying at home is really a means of God’s rescue, giving us new life when we’ve been floundering on the shore unknowingly for years?

In this solitude, like those monks, we are liable to confront our own faults, our deepest temptations. We’re likely to realize just how tempting it is to eat an entire sleeve of cookies in one sitting and open up the fridge to look for a snack four times an hour.

But we also might find unexpected joy: the joy of realizing we really don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did, the joy rediscovering family game night, the joy of contentment, the joy of peace.

Those moments may be few and far between. It’s okay for us to feel unsettled, to feel the grief, even most of the time. But there are moments when we hear and feel the words “Peace be with you.” And maybe it’ll come in the diligent work of cooking a simple meal or of taking a walk around the block.


Acts 1:4 tells us that while Jesus was staying with the disciples in Jerusalem, he “ordered them not to leave, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.”

That is our challenge now—to shelter in place for this designated time, to remain faithful, and to wait here for the promise of the Father.

With the disciples, with all who have sought God in quiet places, we wait in our grief and our longing. And until the day of deliverance comes, until that new day on the other side of this time of death and resurrection, we trust in the words of our comforter, “Peace be with you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Amen.

Angels and Demons (A Sermon)

This message was delivered on the First Sunday after Christmas 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church.

Matthew 2:13–18, 14:1–12

I appreciate the dedication that has brought you to worship today, even on the Sunday after Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas is a time for us to consider the consequences of the Christmas message.

On Monday and Tuesdaywe celebrated the good news that a child has been born to us! The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Word on which all creation was spoken into being has come into the world. Hallelujah!

It’s appropriate for our celebrations to continue. After all, the Christmas season continues all the way up to Epiphany on January 6th. Don’t put your Christmas decorations away yet! Today is only the 6th day of Christmas!

Yet, as we worship in reduced numbers on this awkward Sunday between Christmas an New Years when many people are still traveling and thinking about everything except church, today is an appropriate day for a little reality check.

What did Jesus’ birth at Christmas really accomplish? How did the world react to the good news we’ve been spending our week celebrating.

We all know what ultimately becomes of this little child born in a manger—he’s baptized, he teaches and heals, he calls 12 disciples to participate in his mission, and then… he’s killed by the Romans on a cross. Not exactly what we would expect to result from the grand entrance at Christmas. This baby is, after all, the prince of peace, the mighty God himself!

But anyone who has spent any time with Matthew’s verison of the Nativity knows that death doesn’t even wait that long to rear its ugly head into the story.

After the small child escapes with his young parents to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s evil power, all the male children under two who remained in Bethlehem were massacred.

A “reality check” alarm goes off in our heads. We can remain in our cheap-joy filled sentimental Christmas celebrations no longer. Evil is on the move right as the story beings.

It may be uncomfortable for us to deal with so soon after the celebration, but Fleming Rutledge explains it this way: “The great theme of [this season] is hope, but it is not tolerable to speak of hope unless we are willing to look squarely at the overwhelming presence of evil in our world. Malevolent, disproportionate evil is a profound threat to Christian faith.”

So let’s do it. Let’s take our eyes off the cute baby in the manger for just a second to shoot a piercing glare at the forces of evil in our world and scream in their faces: not today, Satan.

We don’t have to look far.

We can meanacingly on the number of mass-casuality events this past year that have only deepened our divisions while silencing the voices of the dead. We can look at cancerous growths in the bodies of those we love with fists held high and our battle faces on. We can stare down those who have abused and created harmful work environments for God’s children. We can look at those who have used their power to cause human suffering rather than alleviating it.

Not today! We exclaim, but our voices fall on deaf ears. There’s always a new evil in our world for us to condemn. And evil seems far more organized than the resistance. The forces of sin, death, and every kind of evil hold seats in congress. They entertain us. They tell us how to think and who to hate. They sit in executive suites and oval offices. They hold the innocent in prison and serve as judge, jury, and executioner on the street. Evil is well organized in our world!

And, oh yes—let us not forget—the forces of evil even hold a place in our hearts.

Yes, the forces of evil have killed worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue. They have taken out journalists like Jamal Khashoggi. They have left children to die of hunger and thirst while celebrating a job well done. They have sown discord in families and divisions in churches. In big things and in small things, evil has accomplished a lot just in 2018!

The Gospels remind us that this is nothing new. Evil killed a multitude of children while it was trying to extinguish the hope given by baby Jesus and evil took John the Baptizer’s head and nailed Jesus to the cross.

We know some of the names that perpetrated this evil. We know the name of the gunman at Tree of Life. We know the leaders of the Saudi Government who silenced their critic. We can point fingers at border patrol agents and world leaders and bring any who abuse their power to justice. We can convict those who have abused children and harassed adults.

The problem with all this finger pointing is that, eventually, we will have identified a lot of evil without recognizing anything about the enemy. We will get stuck identifying human enemies.

And if we’re in the business of identifiying humans who commit evil by comission or omission, we’re going to identify basically every living person on this earth.

Pointing our fingers at people like King Herod, like we could reasonably do in this story in Matthew 2, would only get us so far. You know why? Because that Herod was followed by another one. And another. And another.

Our Scriptures attest, this battle is so much bigger than any one person. If we spend our time trying to identify human enemies, we’re going to miss a lot of them. Uncover one agent of death and a million more will wait in silence for their moment to pounce.

There is a bigger cosmic drama at play, bigger than any Herod of this world and any one tragedy.

Behind all the evil that we can identify in our world is the one cosmic reality that the Scriptures call by many names.

Put on your 3D glasses and see in a new dimension what is hidden from our eyes.

Go back and look at the nativity scene with spiritual vision and see what surrounded the pregnant Mary, in the process of giving birth, (Revelation 12) “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”

One woman in Louisiana became an internet sensation, and the object of her neighbors ire, a few weeks ago when she put up inflatable dragons in her yard for Christmas. One neighbor spoke for the whole neighborhood when she said, “your dragon display is only marginally acceptable at Halloween. It is totally inappropriate at Christmas. It makes your neighbors wonder if you are involved in a demonic cult.”

I understand what the angry neighbor was trying to express, but I think they got it all wrong. We need to put the inflatable lawn dragons back in Christmas! John the visionary tells us the dragons were right there at Jesus’ birth, hovering over our little nativity scenes ready to snatch the Christ child alive.

This cosmic reality has many names when it appears in the story of Scripture. John sees it as a dragon. Ephesians 6:12 calls these forces, “the rulers, against the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We might also call this spiritual reality sin, death, satan, the accuser, the adversary, the prince of darkness, or the devil.

In the face of all this evil, Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil…”

And this is why the Christ Child has come—to bring power and glory that will wipe out evil for good!

Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”

Jesus came into our world to fight a war that’s been a long time in the making.

It was this mission that led Jesus from the manger to the cross, where the forces of evil thought they would dispose of him for good.

Our world is full of little crosses, marking the deaths of infants, young men and women at war, families fleeing violence, and all who suffer under the weight of death’s rule. And Jesus came to join them by dying on that big cross, suffering along with all of us. That’s why Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ birth with the stark reality of sin, death, and evil. This is why Jesus came!

The nativity begins the great war between the worlds.

On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of the savior. We celebrated the birth of God among us to take a hands on approach to sickness, sin, and suffering. And now, as we wake up from our sugar comas into the reality of the world, we come face to face with the enemy that Jesus came to deal with.

The dragon of evil is on the prowl, even if its only visible in some lady’s yard in Louisiana.

The good news for us now that we’ve had our reality check is that Jesus doesn’t just deal with these enemies one-by-one. Fighting against evil is, for us, a never-ending game of wack-a-mole. But Jesus came to uncover the whole thing. Jesus came to overthrow the power of sin, death, and evil once and for all. This evil is bigger than any of us. We can’t do anything about these forces alone. But Jesus has come to shine a bright light, to release us all from our bondage to sin and the weight of the fear of evil.

The dragons might appear menacing in the dark, illuminated by their own light, but when the big light comes on and the power behind the dragons is switched off, we’ll see this evil for what it really is.

The difficulty we face is that while the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter are significant and decisive moments in this conflict between the worlds, the battle still wages on.

The struggle continues. Herods still sit on their thrones. Children are still massacred and abandoned. Families just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus still flee from their homes to escape a life under the rule of evil’s latest embodiment.

The decisive turning point of the conflict has come, but evil still lurks everywhere we turn.

So what do we do?

Paul, in Romans 12:15, tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” We rejoice when evil is exposed and sin-sick souls find redemption. Any day when sins are confessed and pardon is given is a great day for us and a terrible day for Satan.

And yet, the other part of that call is to “weep with those who weep.” We weep with Rachel for God’s children who are killed and who suffer in destitution. Yet, as 1 Thessalonians 4 puts it, we “do not grieve as those who have no hope.”

When tragedy strikes, as it did last year and will in the next year, let us see it for what it is—the latest appearance of the powers at work for the destruction of the world. When tragedy strikes, we will grieve and weep as those who know human pain. But we will also celebrate the work of Christ on our behalf in birth and in death. We will look to the heavens with our heads held high, knowing that the day of the Lord will come, bringing an end to the rule of evil, sin, and death in our world. We will sing the songs of salvation today and every day, remembering what Christ has done, Christ is doing, and Christ will do for us and the whole world.

The Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” puts this response into song:

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan’s pow’r

When we were gone astray

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Truly, Jesus has come to set us free from Satan’s power. What better comfort could there be?

Return to Sender (A Sermon)

This message was preached on December 29, 2019 at the Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff.

Matthew 2:13-23

As we gathered for our Christmas Eve service on Tuesday and celebrated with our families the rest of the week, we reflected on the Charlie Brown Christmas version of the story. Angels and Shepherds, Mary and Joseph, Wise Men from the East. We sing Silent Night. We light the candles in the darkness. But we do our best not to dwell on the darkness that makes our little candles visible.

If our retelling of the Christmas story last week was like a Charlie Brown holiday special, today’s Scripture is more like a horror movie. A vision in the middle of the night, waking Joseph up from his stupor. Immediately hearts start to pound as we follow this young, vulnerable family on the uncertain journey to Egypt, hiding at every suspicious noise. Looking behind themselves constantly, hoping that one of Herod’s men was not close enough to catch them.

Our hearts are torn in two by the cries of the mothers and fathers who lost their newborn children at the hand of the despotic Herod. We feel relief that baby Jesus is not among them, that God has protected this fragile hope through his brave parents. But what about all the collateral damage in this cosmic battle? Surely none of those grieving parents would find an ounce of reassurance in the news that one newborn baby survived.

For the month or so preceding Christmas, we found ourselves in the season of Christmas preparation. Gifts were inquired about (“what is it that you would like to receive?” we asked friends and family). Gifts were purchased, and if you’re like most American households, your front door was surrounded by packaged you ordered from Amazon.com. These gifts were taken out of their shipping boxes and covered with wrapping paper or stuck in a bag with tissue paper, and lovingly placed under the tree, ready to be opened.

At the same time as these preparations for the more “secular” holiday of Christmas were going on, we in our worship and devotional life were preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ once again. We engaged in similar preparations. We considered what we needed to do to draw closer to God and we pondered the ways that God could appear among us this year and truly answer our prayers.

As our gifts were placed under the tree, waiting to be opened, we all waited with eager longing and expectation for the gift of God’s son Jesus.

We were all pretty sure what we were going to find in this “box.” This is one present we all knew about ahead of time. This isn’t our first Christmas. We’ve opened this gift before. We know what to expect. Even still the expectation was building because we really needed Jesus this year.

We all experienced sorrows and struggles this year that we needed Jesus to come into and make right. In 2019, all of us have had some combination of stress with our job (not being appreciated, not making enough money, not having enough time outside of work), conflict within our families (strained relationships with our friends, our parents, our children, and our partners), struggles with our health (diagnoses we were not expecting or recurring problems we thought had been addressed), and more.

In our worship on Christmas Eve, we got exactly what we were expecting. Our prayers were answered. We celebrated once again the birth of Jesus Christ, meek and mild. A precious baby. A sign of hope! We went home Tuesday night with our hearts full of joy. And maybe on top of all that celebration, we’ve also gotten an answer to prayer.

We all felt that prayers were answered when we heard that Mike Morra was returning home for Christmas. And maybe we experienced some of our own personal miracles last week.

The gift of Jesus, this box that has been sitting under the tree all season, this hope we were expecting has been opened.

Inside that box we find the tiny baby.

But lest we’ve forgotten already, this gift of hope also comes with its polar opposite. It’s a mixed bag. Our Christmas Eve service was filled with light, but it’s also surrounded by darkness! Inside the gift we’ve opened this season, we receive both baby Jesus and the tyranny of King Herod.

We should have expected that the answer to our prayers would be this way. After all, the story of the coming of Jesus into the world bears remarkable similarities to the situation surrounding the captivity in and Exodus from Egypt.

As the book of Exodus opens, we hear how God’s provision for the Hebrews in the land of Egypt had been undermined by a new king, one who saw the resident alien population of Hebrews in his land as a threat.

And so, this new king in Egypt decided to put slave masters over the Hebrews to “oppress them with forced labor.” As the people God had chosen to be a blessing to the world continued to grow and become fruitful, as God had promised, they were oppressed more and more.

Eventually, the population became so large and the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, was so threatened that he declared that “every Hebrew boy that is born, you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

There are rulers like Pharaoh and Herod in every generation, willing to sacrifice little children for the sake of the “greater good” or their own narrow political interests. It is always the weak and vulnerable, like the Hebrew babies in Egypt, the children in Bethlehem, and the young migrants at the borders of the nations of this world who suffer at the hands of power.

There is nothing new in this story. We shouldn’t be so surprised by it.

But there’s something else that strikes me about the Exodus story and the Christmas story. See, for years and years, “the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out to God.”

The Hebrew slaves waited in a season of Advent-like expectation for the one who had made a covenant with them.

They cried out for God to appear in their midst, as we did for the four weeks of Advent.

And finally, if you remember the story, God did respond. He called Moses at the bush that was on fire but would not burn up! There was a sign of hope, an appearance of God anticipating the day when God would appear directly to us through his son.

But what happened? The pain and suffering on the Israelites from their Egyptian rulers increased. They were ordered to make bricks without straw, without reducing their quota.

In response the people said to Moses and Aaron, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

The deliverance the slaves had asked for and been promise turned out to be much harder than they anticipated. And in that moment, they would have done everything to reverse course, get rid of Moses, and suck up to Pharaoh for better treatment.

This pattern continues throughout that story. The people of God cry out to him pleading for rescue. Deliverance comes. And things get harder.

Once the Israelites reach the desert wilderness, the same wilderness Mary and Joseph traveled through with baby Jesus in the opposite direction, they cry out to God, “why did you lead us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness? In Egypt we at least had food! Here in the wilderness we have nothing. This promised deliverance is anything but. They would much rather have no deliverance at all, thank you very much.

I imagine that many of God’s people, living in Bethlehem praying and hoping for a better day, had a similar reaction. Their prayers were answered. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of David, the one who was to redeem Israel had come. But along with his coming came suffering caused by an evil that would do anything to oppose this work of God’s deliverance.

Yes, the promised redeemer had come. But along with that gift from God came the reaction of an evil King who killed all the babies of Bethlehem.

How many in the days of Jesus would have looked at what God was doing and how evil was responding and thought, “we would all be much better off if we left things alone.”

How many of those who received the gift of deliverance, the gift of the newborn Jesus, just wanted to wrap baby Jesus back up and send him back to God where he came from, thinking he was more trouble than he was worth.

Sure, the gift of Jesus is great. But is he really worth the trouble?

The parents of Bethlehem who had lost their children weren’t the only ones who would have wished to make a return on their Christmas gift.

The story, from the ministry of Jesus, in Matthew 8 of the demons and the pigs strikes us as much more humorous. It’s hard to take pigs seriously. But we read that Jesus went into the region of the Gerasenes and freed two men who are possessed by demons, sending them into a herd of pigs. What happens as a result? Well, two men are very happy from being set free, but an entire village comes out to Jesus like an angry mob and “pleads with him to leave their region.”

The gift of Jesus in that case means the loss of an entire town’s way of life. They want to make a return.

Jesus himself says in strong terms, “if anyone comes to me and is not willing to disregard mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own life… such a person cannot be my disciple.”

It seems that Jesus is the present that no one really wants to get because it means letting go of everything else. We might all be tempted to join the Christmas returns line with a large, Galilean-sized gift. Up at the counter, we place Jesus on it and say, “I’d like to make a return. I thought I really wanted this gift, I was excited when I received him, but it turns out he’s far more trouble than he’s worth.”

The truth of the matter is this: when we see evil active in the world or in our own lives, it’s much more likely a sign that God is doing something and evil is trying to snuff it out than it is a sign that God has abandoned us.

When we get more than we bargained for from this gift of Jesus, we might be tempted to make a return. The gift of Jesus is going to upset the status quo and turn our lives upside down and inside out. But when we fully make the decision to follow Jesus wherever he’s going and live in faith and trust that God will provide, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Following Jesus is often going to mean abandoning the safety of what used to be for the assurance that God will be with us wherever we go.

But if we’re going to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, we can’t choose safety and comfort. We have to be willing to live on the margins with Jesus and Joseph and Mary or with the Israelites leaving Egypt—fleeing evil at every turn, trusting in God for everything.

Ask anyone who has made a significant life change—overcoming an addiction to drugs or alcohol, adopting a healthier lifestyle with nutritious food and exercise, recovering from a mental illness, leaving a toxic or abusive relationship. All these things are undeniably good.

We would never tell someone that staying in addiction or in an abusive relationship is a good thing. The comfort offered by that kind of status quo is deadly. But we’d also be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that adopting a new way of life is going to mean catastrophic change to friendships, finances, and daily routines.

New life is, quite often, surrounded by death.

The path to healing through Jesus Christ is hard.

The whole world cries out at the pain that comes as the forces of evil in our world are opposed.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Rulers like Pharaoh and Herod and Addiction and Illness and Abuse and Sin and Death are always going to do their worst.

Like always, we have a choice.

Will we let evil rule and keep Jesus wrapped up in his nice little box? Will we return Jesus to his sender? Will we choose safety and comfort, even if they come at great expense and undermine the foundation on which we stand?

Or will we open this complicated, holy, transformational, and troublesome gift of Jesus Christ and let him live in every part of our life, challenging and vanquishing the forces of sin wherever he finds them at great cost?

The waiting of Advent was and is hard, my friends. But the true way of Christmas is even harder. This gift of Jesus Christ might just mean that we lose everything else.

Mary and Joseph lost all opportunities for a peaceful, calm, ordinary life. And we will too if we take this Jesus seriously.

But the word of assurance and comfort is this: whatever we face in this journey of discipleship, the best news we have is that God is with us

God is with us as he was with the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness

God is with us as he was with Mary and Joseph seeking refuge in a foreign land.

God is present today with all who today call upon the name of the Lord for help.

The way is hard and uncertain. Foes wait around every corner. But God has never and will never abandon us.

It is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we receive this word and trust it in faith. Amen.

Of Former Times (A Sermon)

This post continues a periodic series of sermons preached during my time as Pastor of the Eldersville United Methodist Church.

Delivered January 17, 2016

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it. Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.

Ecclesiastes 7:10–14

How many times have you heard someone, perhaps even yourself, look back at some ideal point in history and sigh, saying “Why were the old days better than these? It seems like the world, our country, and our church are only getting worse.” Certainly, no one can blame us for having such thoughts given the state of Christianity in the United States. In the United Methodist Church, our average attendance has decreased at a rate of about 52,383 people per year. Since 1974, our worship attendance has gone down by 18 percent and the number of churches has declined by 16 percent. Surely, we seem a long way away from the thriving Methodist church of early America and the peak of Christian public influence in the 1950s.

Those were the days, we reminisce, when about half of Americans attended church services on Sunday morning, and most of the rest of them were probably on the membership rolls somewhere.

Why were those days so much better than these?

Certainly, with church attendance numbers at their peak, Christianity had more of a central role in our political system. These were the early days of public preachers like Billy Graham, who filled stadiums with people eager to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. He preached against the evils of disease, snakes, and union dues, denouncing government restrictions as socialism.

In 1952, Rev. Graham visited Washington, DC and brought God to Congress.[1] Soon after, as a result of his influence, he the United States established a National Day of Prayer. In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and placed “In God We Trust” on postage. The next year, the motto was added to paper money. Just as Rome had once declared Christianity as its state religion, with the election of Eisenhower, the United States had adopted the language of the Church. 

That was the height of Christian influence in the public sphere, an influence that seems to have all but vanished. God is still referenced in our pledge and on our money, but we lament our nation’s apparent decline from Christian morality. We long for the good ol’ days when there was prayer in schools, when our Sunday School was full of young children, and when all the important people in town came to church.

This desire to return to days of old is not new. Even in the Methodist glory days of the late 1700s, John Wesley was surrounded by those who thought Christianity, and civilization in general, had reached its peak long ago. In those days, the rationalism of the enlightenment had given rise to Deism and a drift away from Christianity as a public religion. Many cried out against the apparent declining morals and rise of luxury and profaneness.

Yet, Wesley remarked of the “goodness of God in the present age.”[2] He spoke of the rise of benevolence and compassion, the foundation of more hospitals and places of public charity, and he decried those who believed that the people of former ages were more virtuous. He agreed with the writer of Ecclesiastes, who asks us to “consider what God has done” and is doing in good times and in bad.

Some of Wesley’s day would have looked at the American experiment and lamented the government’s indifference to religion, but Wesley did not. In fact, he considered it pure joy, for the indifference of the American government on the issue of religion left room for the rise of true scriptural faith.[3] It freed Christianity from the whims of the state and allowed for the tremendous growth of Methodist Christianity among small groups of lay people who were devoted to the teachings of scripture.

May it be, as was true in Wesley’s day, that the indifference of our government on the matter of religion may lead to the growth of what he called true scriptural Christianity? May it be, that the Church is on the brink of a new revival?

Perhaps not.

Future days might continue to usher in the decline of Methodism in America and Christianity in the Western world. Our denominational leadership believes the time when such a revival can occur is running out. From a statistical perspective, if our rate of decline doesn’t change by 2030, our connection will have collapsed by 2050.[4]

I don’t say any of this to frighten us, but I think that all of us who love God and were transformed by God’s work through the Church are longing for a scriptural response to the apparent decline of Christianity. We’re longing for hope.

Ironically, it is the often pessimistic book Ecclesiastes that offers us a true, hopeful scriptural perspective. We should not say “Why were the old days better than these?” for it truly is not wise to ask such questions. Rather, we should praise God, for God has been faithful to us.

God has made the good times, as well as the bad. We may not know what the future holds, but we are given the hope that God will continue to be faithful to us. No matter what the future holds, may we likewise be faithful to God, who sent Jesus Christ to live among us, teaching, dying, and conquering death that we may have life. May we be faithful to the One who sent his Holy Spirit to work in us, that we may be enabled to do the work of the God who created us.

Church, do not bemoan the challenges of the current time, but respond to God’s call with joy. Not all are called to be pastors, but all are called to a unique mission of service to God. In my case, I was called to pastoral ministry at a young age. I remember one occasion in particular when God gave me a nudge and asked me to respond. As a youth, I was at a conference where an adult mentor was presenting some research on the future of the church. He told us what we already knew to be true: that our generation was largely disassociated with the Church and religion in general. I felt the call of God to respond, and I am by no means the only one. 

There are amazing people out there of every generation who are doing the work of the kingdom. There are people called to serve oversees, in the inner city, and in rural America as pastors, counselors, teachers, and professionals of every kind. No matter their vocation, they bring the light of Christ to dark places. No matter our age, occupation, or surrounding culture, God can and will use us in whatever way we are equipped.

So, I ask you to respond to God’s call by continuing to pray for our church, our denomination, and our world. Pray with the hopeful knowledge that God will send his Holy Spirit among us to breathe new life into our ministry. Pray with the knowledge that we have a future full of hope. Pray with a willingness to respond to God’s call upon your life to do whatever God may be calling you to do.

In Charles Wesley’s hymn “A Charge to Keep I Have,” we sing that all of us, young and old, have a charge to keep and a calling to fulfill. Bemoaning our current situation will get us nowhere. Instead, may we truly use all of our creative energies and skills to the glory of God, for every day is a day that God has made. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let us pray:

Lord God, sustain in us the flame of your Spirit. Help us to continue to carry the light of your Son to every dark corner of our world. Help us in times of darkness to remember what you have done on our behalf and what you continue to do among us. Help us to not be ashamed of your testimony, and give us the wisdom to present your good news to others with grace. Remind us of the faithfulness of people like Paul, who was willing to die for his faith, and the faithfulness of John Wesley, who rode on horseback to proclaim your message to every corner of society. Help us likewise to deliver your message to the sick, the imprisoned, the poor in spirit, and all who are our neighbor. Inspire us to greater service and faithfulness, as we continue to pray for your kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen


[1] Kruse, Kevin M. “A Christian Nation? Since When?” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/opinion/sunday/a-christian-nation-since-when.html?_r=1.

[2] Wesley, John. Sermons III. Edited by Albert Cook Outler. Vol. 3. The Works of John Wesley.

[3] Ibid. 452

[4] Hahn, Heather. “Economist: Church in Crisis but Hope Remains.” http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/economist-united-methodist-church-in-crisis.