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, February 8, 2015

Sermon (February 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Look Up!"

    While away at college, a daughter wrote this letter to her parents.
Dear Mom & Dad,
     “Just thought I’d drop you a note to clue you in on my plans. I’ve fallen in love with a guy named Jim. We’re going to get married as soon as he divorces his wife. I decided to drop out of school and maybe finish college sometime later. Also, I don’t know how it happened but someone hit your car where I had it parked. It’s going to be expensive to get it fixed.”
     She goes on to write, “Actually, NONE of what I just wrote is true. There’s no guy named, Jim. I’m still a student in college. And your car is totally fine. But it IS true that I got a C minus in French and flunked my math class. And it is true that I need some more spending money this semester.”
Your Daughter
     This daughter understands the power of perspective, doesn’t she? Perspective is a powerful thing, right? It can make all of the difference in the world.
     Our faith helps to keep things in perspective.
     The prophets that we read about in the Old Testament used the powerful tool of perspective to help God’s people to begin trusting in God again. Isaiah was one of those prophets. He was writing during a very difficult time for the people of Israel.
     They had been taken over by a foreign power and were forced to leave their homes. They had undergone great trials and adversity. They had been so beaten down by life that they had forgotten that God was still with them. They were wondering if God had given up on them.
     The prophet Isaiah, knowing of their deep despair tells them to do a very simple thing that we all forget to do from time to time. He tells them to look up. He doesn’t just say it once. He says it twice in this one scripture passage that we heard read a little bit ago. “Look up.”
     Sometimes we can get tunnel vision to the point where all we see are the problems we are facing. Our focus can become so concentrated on our particular situation that we forget the bigger picture of God’s presence and guidance in our lives. As Isaiah says in our scripture reading, we need to look up.

     Several years ago, I was helping with a youth event at the church I was serving. The event included a special worship service in the sanctuary involving some clowns. The clowns were going to act out a skit about God’s love. The whole thing was going to be in silence and without the use of any spoken words.
     The youth were all seated in the first five or six pews of the sanctuary. Before the clown skit, one of our adult leaders stood up in front and asked the youth to not talk and be in silence because we were going to experience something very special.
     He told the youth to be in an attitude of prayer. Well that was a mistake for him to say that because after he sat down, all of the youth bowed their heads. The clowns then entered the room and began acting out their skit in silence.
     After about three minutes into the skit, we as the adult leaders realized that several of the youth still had their heads bowed down. They had missed the beginning of the skit since it was all being done in silence. We all began to elbow the youth next to us to have them look up and not miss any more of the skit.
     That little experience reminded me that sometimes prayer involves looking up and not just bowing our heads. When we bow our heads, we might just miss out on what God is trying to convey to us. Looking up can help us to not lose perspective on the signs of God’s presence that are all around us.

     The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that happened a couple of years ago was a terrible, terrible tragedy. It was one of those events that can shake our faith to the core.
     I remember receiving e-mails, facebook messages, and having conversations with people in the church about how God could allow something as terrible as this to happen to little children. As a pastor, I know that there are no perfect answers to these kinds of difficult questions about our faith.
     I basically offered a couple of thoughts regarding our faith and this awful tragedy. My first response was to say that tragedies such as this remind us that we live in a very broken and hurting world where people can inflict so much harm and cause so much pain to others. When we encounter tragic news such as this, it feels like all we can do is bow our heads and ask God, “Why?”
     My second response was to say that we need to remember that there is also a lot of goodness and beauty in this broken and hurting world. Just think about the many teachers who did very heroic things that day to protect the children. Think about how that community came together to support one another in remarkable ways.
     Just as that tragedy reminded us of the bad in our world, we were also reminded of a lot of good that is in our world through the caring acts of so many people. It can be easy to miss out on the goodness when our heads stay bowed. But if we look up, we catch glimpses of how God’s goodness is at work in the world even in the face of so much evil.

      In the first church I served as a student pastor, our church did something really fun for Easter.  After our Easter service that year, everyone went outside and stood in front of the church building.  Each person was given a different color balloon containing the message, “Jesus is risen.”
     One of our members was a photographer and he took a picture of us as we let go of our balloons on the count of three.  The picture captures us looking into the sky intently as we watched our balloons gradually drift away carrying the message of the good news of our faith.
     I can still remember one little child who had released a balloon shout out, “I can still see my balloon!  I can still see my balloon!”  But after several minutes, none of us could see any of our balloons.  That’s when we quit staring into the sky.
     This picture always brings a smile to my face. Sometimes we need to bow our heads, but sometimes we need to look up and remind ourselves that God is about to do a new thing. Maybe we don’t look up enough.
     Isaiah might not being asking us to look up to watch a balloon release but he is wanting us to look up at the sky. The sky represents God’s vast creation.  It helps us to put things in perspective.

     Have you ever noticed that most of the pictures on our computer home screens are pictures of nature, either a picture of some tropical island or like my laptop, a picture of a night sky with bright stars. It’s in our nature to look up and find renewal.
     When I look up at the sky on a starlit night, it makes me think about God and how God has ordered everything in just the right way. As Isaiah says, we are reminded that God is an everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.
     Unless we go camping or live in a remote area without artificial lighting, it can be easy for us to seldom look up at the sky at night. We don’t feel the need to look up because of all of our street lights.
     As beautiful as a city can be when it is lit up at night, nothing compares to the beautiful bright stars that fill the skies on a clear night. They point us to a much deeper reality of a creator who has made all that is around us and called it good.
     My dad loved to go deer hunting ever since he was a boy.  Throughout his years of hunting, he got his fair share of deer. During his final years of hunting, he didn’t even attempt to shoot any deer even though he had plenty of opportunities. I asked him why he gave up on trying to get any deer. He said that what gave him even greater joy was to just be out in the woods where he could be alone in the silence of nature.
     I never fully appreciated being on the side of a mountain during the early morning hour when it was only 25 degrees like my dad did. But I can understand why he felt renewed every year around deer season. Being in the mountains had a way of clearing his mind and refreshing his soul.
     When Isaiah tells us to look up, he is inviting us to see things from a new perspective. He is inviting us to see our problems and our challenges in light of a God who can make all things new. Isaiah is inviting us to look up and renew our spirits.
     There are a lot of ways for us to look up and be renewed in our faith. It’s not a once size fits all approach. For some people like my dad, to look up involves the mountains during deer hunting season. Our Boy Scouts know something about taking time to draw closer to God by being out in nature.
     For other people, it might be a spiritual retreat. Even an overnight get away that includes a spiritual focus can do wonders for your soul.
     Every year, a friend of mine and I make it a point to spend three days at his cottage along Lake Erie to pray together, do some sermon planning, share in Holy Communion, eat out, and visit sites in the area. We have been doing this for the past seven years. I always come from these three-day get aways renewed and energized for ministry.
     Many people can point back to a church camp experience around a campfire where they made a decision to become a follower of Jesus. Those are other ways that we can look up and be renewed in our faith.
     Some other ways that we can look up and be renewed include participating in daily prayer and scripture, weekly worship, small groups, Sunday School classes, and ministries through the church. We call these types of ongoing activities, “Means of Grace” which are spiritual disciplines that are meant to quicken our souls.
     When it feels like God is distant and we are feeling weak in our faith, Isaiah offers a very important word to us. “Look up.” Look up and remember that God is an everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth.
     When we look up, Isaiah says that we will renew our strength; we will mount up with wings like eagles, we will run and not be weary, we will walk and not faint.
     Whenever I read this well known verse from this scripture passage, I think back to my first year with you when I fainted during one of the morning worship services. I felt really ill and light headed that Sunday morning. But it was Mothers’ Day and confirmation Sunday and I really didn’t want to miss church on that day.
     I thought that I could make it through the morning on my own strength. Tough it out!
     Well, as many of you know, I fainted as I started to preach during the last worship service that morning.  I went home and stayed in bed the rest of the day. The very next day, Monday, I felt a lot better.
     The next day, Tuesday morning, I was scheduled to officiate for a funeral. I remember feeling a little unsure of how I was going to do. I just prayed that God would give me the strength to get through that funeral service.
     So I start this funeral service and it’s time for me to read the scripture reading. The scripture was this same reading from today, Isaiah chapter 40. So I’m reading along and I get to verse 28 where it says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary.”
     A smile came to my face as I read the word, “faint.”
     I continued to read. “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary and the young will fall exhausted.”
     When I read the word, “faint,” two more times in that one verse, another smile came to my face. Wow, God really does have a sense of humor.
     And then I read the last verse. “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.”
     I didn’t realize until that funeral service, just how many times Isaiah uses the word, “faint” in this one scripture passage. Four times!
     When I read the word, “faint” this fourth time in this one passage, I almost lost it right there in the middle of that funeral service. I believe this was God’s way of having a little fun with me. It was one of those unexpected moments where God where God was reminding me that I wasn’t alone. God was right there by my side.

     Renewed, strengthened, and revived, I left that funeral home that morning ready to fly like an eagle again. That’s what happens when you look up.

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