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Tue, Sep 10, 2019

We're on the Way

Duration:18 mins 55 secs

My friends, before we get to our Second Reading this morning, I would like to take a minute to talk about this moment in our life together. God continues to bless us as a congregation with faith, hope, love, and joy. We are growing with new members, as we’ve seen once again this morning. Our children and youth are beginning an exciting new year. Our parents are gathering for study and fellowship. We rejoice in the energy, wisdom, and courage our senior adults share with us each and every day. Our mission and involvement in our community is growing and we are looking forward to our fifth (wow 5th!) church-wide Inasmuch Day of Service on Saturday, September 28th. We worship, we study, we eat, and we care for one another in faithful and engaging ways. Yes, God has blessed us!

But with all of these blessings, there is a temptation to rest and relax; to think that everything is just fine; to desire that everything remains just the same. But my friends, I think you probably know me well enough by now to know that one of my convictions is that until the Kingdom comes in its fullness and glory, God is not finished with us yet. Yes, God is not finished with Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church yet.

So for the last few years we have been thinking and praying; talking and asking questions; and praying some more about how we might characterize the next moment in our life together as a congregation. And today we are very excited to share with you our new vision - Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church: We’re on the Way! A video introduction is in the final editing stages, there will social media posts, new church t-shirts, magnets, stickers, and a banner to hang outside on Walton Way. Yes, with this new vision we are inviting you and our community to join us on a journey because we trust that God is not finished with us yet. We’re on the Way! And the first stop on this way is to fall in love again, or the first time, with Jesus. Yes, with Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And not only to love Jesus, but all those that Jesus loves.

Yes, we’re on the way! Now it might seem a bit odd to announce this new vision on the same day as we begin our annual stewardship campaign. However, in fact, these two go hand in hand. One of the classic definitions of stewardship is: Everything we do after we say, “I believe.” Yes, stewardship is everything we do after we say, “I believe.” If that is the case, stewardship is not one aspect of a faithful Christian life, it is the faithful Christian life. Stewardship is how we use our time, our talents, and our treasures not just here at the church, but every moment of every day. In the same way our new vision, “We’re on the Way” is about walking with Jesus every moment of every day.

Even more, we have paired our stewardship theme this year with our new vision. Our stewardship theme is “Step by Step,” and as you have already heard from Mike Williams this morning we will be thinking about the steps we take with Jesus on the Way.

Over the next four weeks we will hear about preparing for the journey, about meeting Jesus on the Way, about some of the practical steps we can take related to giving, and finally, on Commitment Sunday, September 29th, we will celebrate with a still more excellent way.

But today we prepare for and begin this journey. And that brings us to our Second Reading for this morning from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 3-5. Chapter 40 marks a shift in the book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters are words to God’s people before the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem falls in roughly 597 BC to the Babylonians and the people are taken into exile in Babylon. A long silence follows the last verse of chapter 39 that is finally broken by new words of hope and comfort announced in the first verse of chapter 40. It is a new beginning and it appears that in this text we are eavesdropping on a heavenly conversation. Let us hear this Word of God.

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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The trailer begins with the beloved characteristic music and the hood of a driving classic car. It quickly moves to a shot of the iconic house surrounded by the grounds. A few more familiar shots follow before we see a messenger on a motorcycle driving up the long stone driveway. A letter is delivered, it passes through the hands of servants, footmen, and the butler, until finally after reading the message, Robert Crawley, the patriarch of the family, utters in seeming disbelief, “The King and Queen are coming to Downton.” Yes, the much anticipated Downton Abbey movie opens this coming Thursday night and it appears that the plot will center on a royal visit to the family and servants of Downton Abbey.

The rest of the trailer shows some of the initial preparations for the visit. Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, tells the staff that she wants every surface to gleam and sparkle. Mrs. Patmore, the cook, looks at a list of royal meals that she must prepare and declares, “I’m going to have to sit down!” Despite the staff’s great dedication and skill, the preparations appear to be too much. Robert Crawley’s daughter Mary, who is coordinating the visit for the family, is overwhelmed. She pays a visit to Mr. Carson, the retired butler to ask for his help and of course he is pleased to return to service. Together they must prepare the way for the visit of the King and Queen. What else the movie holds, I guess we will have to wait and see in the theatre.

I was struck by the preparations required for a royal visit as I heard in our text for today: A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” To the people of God who have languished for generations in exile, these words announce that their God is coming. They have not been forgotten. There is hope. There is a future. The Lord is on the way. It is time to get ready.

Now throughout scripture there are times when an immediate response to the call of God is required. For example, when Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and encounters Simon and his brother Andrew casting nets into the sea, he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately Simon and Andrew leave their nets and follow him.

But more often, there are preparations to be made before taking that first step. When God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt there are 10 plagues before Pharaoh finally agrees to let them go. When the prophet Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel, it is years and years before he actually becomes king. When Jesus wants to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he sends two disciples to fetch a donkey for him while others are cutting branches in the countryside to wave in the parade. Yes, most often there are preparations to be made.

In our first reading this morning, we heard John the Baptist explain his role in this way. He says that he is not the Messiah; he is not Elijah; he is not the prophet. Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” and John says,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,’”

Yes, John is preparing the way of the Lord. John is doing that by baptizing in the wilderness and by pointing us to Jesus. The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth was one who most appreciated this aspect of John’s ministry. From the time he was a young pastor, Barth kept a reproduction of a three panel painting by Grunewald over his desk. On the left panel, John, the beloved disciple holds Jesus’ mother Mary as she looks in horror at the bloody, pierced body of her son on the cross. In the right panel, John the Baptist, in bare feet and camel hair cloak, holds a book in one hand and raises the long, bony index finger of his other hand toward Jesus on the cross. That, says Barth, is true discipleship: simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ. That is stewardship. That is preparing the way of the Lord.

So, my friends, as you and I prepare for this journey together with Jesus, how do we begin? What practical preparations are needed for us to receive the King of Kings? Since stewardship is everything we do after we say “I believe,” where does our stewardship begin?

Pastor John Indermark suggests several places where we might begin. We might begin thinking about stewardship as an investment. Give and God will bless you. This sounds enticing, but remember the Reformation began as a protest against indulgences, i.e. the practice of buying God’s blessing through financial gifts. The idea of investing to get God’s blessings also tends to focus on guilt. Because if we’re not getting the blessing we want it must be because we are not investing enough. So, let us not begin our journey with Jesus here.

A second starting point could be stewardship to meet a crisis. We give to meet a need - a new roof, repairs to the organ, a youth group trip, a particular program that we enjoy. There are certainly needs to be met, but what happens when the bills are paid and the balance is growing. Are we finished giving? Is stewardship no longer required? Do we need to find a new “panic” button each year?

Perhaps another starting point is obligation. It is your duty to give. We all must carry our share of the load. Now certainly all are needed to prepare the way the Lord in this place, but commanding giving turns it into a law that runs counter to the gospel message of grace. Exercising discipline in giving, like making a pledge, is a positive thing. Yet when our giving is merely an obligation, a law that we must fulfill, it runs the risk of becoming a duty instead of a joy.

So, my friends, instead of giving to buy God’s favor, to meet a continual crisis, or as an obligation, let me invite you to begin our stewardship journey by recognizing we have nothing to give but that which we have received from the Lord. As a theological ancestor John Calvin once said, “Faith is like an empty, open hand stretched out towards God, with nothing to offer and everything to receive." We are like Mrs. Patmore the cook overwhelmed by all that she has to do to prepare for the royal visit and declares, “I have to sit down!” We are like Mary Crawley overwhelmed by the preparations, so she goes to Mr. Carson to ask for help. So we prepare the way of the Lord not by figuring out what we have left over to give after we’ve taken care of all of our other obligations. No, we prepare with an attitude of self-less thanksgiving for the multitude of blessings that we have received.

The Prophet Isaiah speaks a word that the Lord is on the way. John the Baptist prepares the way by pointing us to the Lord who has come to be crucified for us and to conquer death for us through his resurrection on the third day. May our preparations begin with recognizing the amazing gifts that we have received, the mountains that have been moved, and the rough places that have been made plain. May we take our first steps with gratitude and not self-glorification. For the glory of the Lord will be revealed as we join Jesus on the way.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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