A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sermon (January 13) - "A River & a Beach"


    What motivated you to make all the effort to wake up on a rainy January Sunday morning and come to church today?  We’re in this post-holiday winter month and yet, here we are.  We’re in church.  What was it that prompted you to be here today?
     Something jumped out at me when I first read our Gospel reading for today.  Maybe you noticed it too.  Luke tells us that the people who came to see John the Baptist were filled with expectation.  I wonder if this partially explains why we make our way to this place on Sunday mornings. 
     I read somewhere that people are more open to attending church when they’re facing some kind of challenge or change in their lives.  It could be a death of a loved one, a loss of a job, a move into a new community, a health issue – We tend to be more open to finding a church and exploring our faith when we are face transitions in life.
     I’m always interested in what brings people to church.  Sometimes people come through these doors because deep down, they know that there’s got to be something more in life.  There just might be something that will help them to know that God is real.
     Luke tells us that the people came with their questions.  They probably had a lot of questions.  Who is this man standing by the River Jordan calling out for the people to turn their lives around and repent?  Why is he immersing them with water?  Is he the one who will lead us to freedom from Roman rule?  Is this the time we’ve all been waiting for all these years? 
     The River Jordan is symbolic for that place that we all long for, that place where just maybe, just maybe, we can experience wholeness and newness of life.  And we bring our questions, our doubts, our longings, and our expectations.
     Maybe this church is your Jordan River.  I hope this is a place where we feel that we can bring our questions and our expectations and know that there is a community of people who accept us as we are. 
     It’s OK to come to this place and say, “I honestly don’t know how to handle what I’m facing in my life right now.  I have more questions than answers and that’s why I’m here.”  If this sounds like you, I hope you know that this is a church where many of us have similar questions and we’re so glad you’re here.  We recognize that we are all on a journey and together we can be there for each other.
    Someone in our congregation was telling me about a conversation he had with a friend who doesn’t attend any church.  And this friend of his was sharing about a huge problem that he was facing in his life.  As he talked about this problem, he kept ruling out possible solutions.
     After patiently listening to this person share his problems and his questions, this church member introduced him to something that he had never thought of doing.  He said to him, “Here is what I have found.  When you don’t know what to do, pray.”  And right there where they had been having their conversation, he prayed for his friend.  He didn’t solve his problems but he did point him to the One who can make all things new.
     Notice that when the people brought their expectations and questions to John the Baptist, he didn’t try to provide easy answers and quick solutions.  Instead, he pointed them to the one who can make all things new.  He pointed them to Jesus Christ. 
     Our church is a place where we can bring all of our questions and expectations and encounter the presence of Christ.  We might not have all the answers, but like John the Baptist, we can point each other to Christ who promises to be with us always.
     This kind of reminds me of a pastor who was leading a children’s sermon.  He told them that he had something very exciting to share with them that day.  The children’s eyes lit up and they couldn’t wait to hear what it was. 
     The pastor asked them, “What is small and furry, has a big tail that often goes straight up and runs around the yard gathering nuts?”  One very attentive little boy timidly raised his hand.  “OK, Jimmy.  What do you think it is?”
     And this little boy said, “Well…I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds a lot like a squirrel.”
     What a great answer!  This little boy had learned that Jesus is at the center of all of our questions and longings.  Jesus is at the center of all our deepest needs.  Jesus is at the center of all our hopes and dreams. 
     And all that John the Baptist needed to do was to point people to Jesus.  He knew that if they found Jesus, that they would receive more than what he had to offer.  The church member who was listening to his friend could have relied on his own wisdom, but instead, he pointed him to Jesus and invited him to pray.
     It’s not our advice that makes us the church.  It’s the One to whom we point that makes us the church.  I’m not that clever of a person.  I don’t have a whole lot of wisdom that can help people experience hope and transformation.  But I do know the One who has made me whole.  I do know the One who has freed me from my brokenness and sin.  I do know the One who is more powerful than all of us combined.  That’s him over there, the one with a dove descending upon him, the One who has heard a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
     The water of baptism reminds us of the river where we encounter the One who makes all things new.  It’s through our baptism, that God claims us and calls us by name.  It’s through our baptism that we are reminded that we are never alone.  God is with us.
     The water of baptism reminds us of the river where John the Baptist stood so long ago.  But it also reminds me of the ocean and the beach…Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to be exact.  This is where Penny and I spent our vacation last summer.  Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  It’s just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey and it’s just north of Ocean City, Maryland. 
     Penny and I were sitting on the beach, 78 degrees, blue skies, listening to the waves, reading, and relaxing, when I turned to her and asked, “Why haven’t we been going to the beach every summer?  What is wrong with us?”  You know why we finally went to the beach last summer?  It’s because of all of those summer vacation beach pictures you post on facebook every single summer.  I couldn’t take it anymore! I said, “This year, we’re going to the beach.”
     During one of our days at the beach, we got some ice cream and we sat down on a bench there on the boardwalk.  And I noticed an historical marker directly across from us.  I like history, so I went over to read about the history of Rehoboth Beach. 
     Now, I was fully aware that Methodists have started over 100 colleges and universities.  And I’m also aware that we have over 70 hospitals and clinics throughout the country and many more around the world.  But I didn’t know that the place where I was standing was started by the Methodist Church!
     So here is a summary of this historical marker: In 1872, the Methodist preacher, Robert W. Todd of St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware was feeling very tired and feeble from weeks of conducting several camp meeting services. 
     He decided to spend time at a beach on the Jersey Shore.  He returned to his church greatly restored in health and spirit. He shared of his experience in a sermon using as his text the words, “And the sea hath spoken.”
     This holy personal renewal led this Methodist clergyman to establish The Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church on January 27, 1873.  His desire was to provide a place where people could come to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the Atlantic Ocean.  This Methodist preacher who had experienced God’s renewing love on his recent trip to the beach wanted others to experience this transformation as well.
     When I read that sign, I felt God’s presence in a very real way.  Just two weeks earlier, I had experienced a death in my family and this vacation couldn’t have come at a better time for Penny and me.  Being at the beach was truly a spiritual renewal for us.
     And then as if that wasn’t enough, I remembered that this was the same beach where my church youth group would go for a weekend spiritual retreat each year.  During one of those summer youth retreats, I experienced God’s love for me in a very real way.  After I returned  home from that retreat, I knew that Jesus was in my heart.  I knew that God would always be with me. 
     All of these emotions came rushing over me as I stood in front of that Rehoboth Beach historical marker.  I said a quick prayer of thanks to God for this feeling of renewal and hope.  God really does work in mysterious ways.
     For the people in our Gospel reading, it was a river.  For me last summer, I experienced Christ at a beach.
       Whether it’s a river or a beach, Christ invites us to bring our aching hearts, our questions and our expectations. And trust me, trust me, he will meet you there by the water.

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