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, November 15, 2015

Sermon (November 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Seated at the Right Hand of God"

     On Friday night, I led a wedding rehearsal here at the church. After the rehearsal, I met my family at a restaurant for a special dinner together. Our son and daughter and son-in-law spent Friday evening through Saturday with us.
     As I was making my way to the restaurant this past Friday night, I noticed how busy Athens was. I love our vibrant community here where people are going out to dinner or just walking up and down the sidewalks of Court Street.
     That’s the way it’s supposed to be in cities throughout the world at the beginning of a weekend. That’s the way it was supposed to be in Paris, France this past Friday.
     Instead, many of us were getting news alerts on our smartphones about the terrible terrorist attacks that were happening in that beautiful city. We continue to be heartbroken over this news.
     I’m thankful that in light of all that has happened in our world and what we are hearing and reading in the news about this tragedy, that we can come to church today and catch our breath as we offer our prayers for the people of France.
     Our Hebrew’s scripture reading offers us great comfort during this weekend of heartache. It reminds us that sometimes, especially following the events of this past Friday, that the best thing for us to do is kneel and offer ourselves to God.
     In the world of the Bible, people did a lot more standing and walking then they did sitting or reclining.  Most jobs in that time period included standing or walking for long periods of time.  At least, I don’t think there were a lot of office jobs back then.
     One of those standing jobs was a very important one for the people of Israel.  It was in being a priest, an intercessor between the people and God. 
     Priests spent a lot of time on their feet because they would sacrifice animals to God so that the sins of the people would be forgiven, until they would sin again.  And then another sacrifice would need to be made.   
     This point about priests standing while doing their work, might seem like a trivial piece of information from the Bible, but it’s not trivial to the author of the Book of Hebrews. 
     Our scripture passage this morning begins by saying, “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again, the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”
    I wonder how many times these priests, after standing all day sacrificing animal after animal, would wonder, “Is all this effort really worth it if people simply go on sinning anyway?  There has to be a more satisfying job out there.  There just has to be!”
     Several years ago, I attended a renewal weekend at a United Methodist Church in Central Pennsylvania.  The main speaker was a dynamic preacher and pastor.  And he shared about a time in his life, early in his pastorate, which literally changed everything for him.
     He was serving a church, a busy church and he was also serving on a lot of community boards and agencies.  He reached a point where he couldn’t keep up with this busy schedule.  On top of that, his church was at a plateaued situation and he was beginning to feel very frustrated.
     One morning, he took to heart a verse from the Book of Psalms – “Be still and know that I am God.”  He thought to himself, “Why not?” 
     From that moment on, he decided that he would quit being so busy, and to instead spend more time in prayer and being still before God.  That’s a radical change for someone who was so used to being busy.
     When he went into church that day, he surprised his secretary by saying, “Please call all of the agencies and boards that I’m on, and tell them that I need to resign and cancel all my meetings for today.”  And then he said, “I’ll be in my study alone with God.  And I also won’t be able to answer any phone calls.”
     And this pastor told us that he went into his study, walked to the middle of his room, and sat down on the floor.  He spent the whole morning being still and praying for the Holy Spirit to fill his church and his ministry.
     He went on to tell us that from that day on, things began to really change in his congregation.  People were beginning to rely on God’s strength in all that they were doing.
     When tough decisions faced the congregation, the people would instinctively call on God for help, rather than try to solve problems with their own strategies and insights.  The congregation began spending a lot of time in prayer and less time in simply being a busy church.
     And then he ended his personal sharing by telling us that this is when the church began to really grow.  This church began to grow, all because this pastor learned how to sit and pray.
     In a standing room only type of culture with busy people going here and there, maybe we should think about sitting more often and inviting the Holy Spirit to work within us. 
     Which brings us to the very next verse from our Hebrews scripture reading.  The first verse in this passage talks about priests standing all day trying to sacrifice enough animals to keep up with the sins of the people.  But this is a never ending process. 
     No wonder priests had tired feet! Talk about job security. They had it!
     But just look at the next verse in this passage of scripture.  “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’”
     What a contrast.  Our scripture begins with priests who are on their feet all day long, week after week, and year after year, and then it talks about Jesus Christ, who after offering a sacrifice for the people, ends up being seated at the right hand of God.
     He is able to be seated, because, he has offered a better sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice.  Jesus can be seated because he was able to accomplish what no one was able to accomplish on their own power or strength – the offering of one’s life in perfect submission to God.
     That perfect sacrifice that Jesus made didn’t involve animals.  Jesus became the sacrifice itself.  Jesus offered his very life and died on a cross in order that we might have forgiveness from our sins. 
     That’s the good news of our faith.  There’s no need for Jesus to be on his feet again.  Jesus has done everything necessary in order for you and me to be the people He has called us to be.
     If you’re longing to be forgiven and you feel like God doesn’t love you or that you have to do something to earn God’s favor – hear the good news from the Book of Hebrews today – Jesus says, “I will remember your sins no more.”
     When the Apostles’ Creed includes this short phrase in the middle of the creed, “and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” it is announcing the good news that Jesus Christ has completed his work of salvation through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
     Jesus is seated.  He has completed what he came to do.
     For those of us who like to be busy and always on the go, it might be especially difficult to pin our ultimate hope on someone who is seated in a place called heaven.
     The busier our lives become in our fast pace world, the more difficult it is for us to fathom that the Christian faith is about a Savior who has done everything for us that we will ever need.
     When I was a freshman in college, I was really struggling with what I was supposed to do with my life. I wasn’t happy with my major and so I decided to put all of my focus on playing baseball in college. When baseball was no longer fulfilling my happiness, I started to feel really, really empty.
     I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was at a really low point.
     Until one day, when I happened to come across an old cassette tape from a county-wide youth rally that I had attended when I was in my early teens.
     After I dusted off that old cassette tape, and by the way, for those of you who grew up with Bluetooth and streaming devices, a cassette tape was something that cavemen had to use a long time ago.
     Anyway, I listened to that cassette tape in which the speaker challenged the youth who had gathered for that rally to make a commitment to put Jesus Christ first in our lives.  He said that if we would put Jesus first in everything we did, that we would experience a sense of peace and purpose in our lives.
     Now, remember, I was there at that youth rally and heard that message in person, but when I listened it on tape several years later as a struggling freshman in college, it was like I was hearing if for the very first time.
     I listened to that tape over and over again, just taking in the message to put Jesus first in everything I do. And then, one afternoon, I’ll never forget it.
     I got on my knees and I made a recommitment of my life to Christ. I did a dangerous thing, but I had nothing to lose. I promised Jesus that I would do whatever he wanted me to do. I told him that I had tried to do things my way but now I wanted to trust in him.
     When I stood up from that prayer, it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt a peace that I had been missing. Sometimes, instead of being on our feet all the time, God wants us to kneel.
     There were two things that Jesus wanted me to do immediately. The first thing was to study and get good grades even though I wasn’t sure about my major. It worked! I made the Dean’s list the next Semester.
     The next thing Jesus wanted me to do was to begin a new bible study group by inviting people my age who didn’t have a church home.
     That bible study group met regularly for the rest of my time in college. Two people in that group ended up becoming pastors. One of the group members stopped going to parties every weekend and started attending church on a regular basis. For others, we were able to encourage and help each other grow in our faith.
     That moment of surrender led me to respond to a calling into the pastoral ministry. It was only when I finally stopped running and started to yield my life to what God wanted me to do, that I was able to have peace and direction in my life.
     I learned to trust in the one who lived, died, rose again, and is now seated at the right hand of God. The one who is seated on the heavenly throne wanted me to stop running and start trusting.
     In one of the churches I served, I was walking through the sanctuary one day when someone yelled out to me in a not so polite way, “Hey, where’s the chair that used to be up there in the front of our sanctuary?” 
     At first, I didn’t know what she was talking about, (what chair?) but then I looked to where she was pointing.  She was pointing to a side of our chancel area in the front of our sanctuary.
     “The chair that used to be up there by the pulpit.  Where is it?” she demanded to know.
     “It’s back there behind the new sound board desk,” I said, rather nervously.
     “Well why is it there and not back up here where it’s been for as long as I can remember?”
     The tone of her voice indicated to me that I was in deep doo-doo.
     “Well, the worship team needed a chair for the sound technician which would match the woodwork of the new sound board desk and since we never use this chair up front during worship, this seemed like the way to go.”
     That was not the answer she wanted to hear.  Shaking her head in disgust, she yelled back, “The person back here can just as easily sit on a folding chair.  This other chair belongs back up front so people can see it!”
     She walked out of the sanctuary.  Meeting adjourned. End of conversation.
     Such are the risks and perils of furniture donated to the church.
     As I look back on that little episode which happened several years ago, I can still picture that very chair which used to sit on the right side of our chancel area.  Sunday after Sunday, that chair would sit empty. 
     The author of Hebrews has good news for us. The chair to the right of God is not empty.  In that chair is seated the one who died on the cross for your sins and my sins.  In that chair is seated the one who we proclaim as Savior and Lord.
     On this weekend where the world grieves over the events of this past Friday, this chair that you see in the front of our sanctuary is a powerful reminder that even though it may look empty, it really isn’t. The risen Christ is seated there and he promises to come again.
     And when he comes again, this world will be made new again. It will be a world where there is no more death, no more sorrow, no more pain, no more suffering, no more terrorist attacks, no more unspeakable evil, no more injustice.
     So, I’m glad you came to church today, heavy hearts and all. Our Hebrew’s scripture reading has reminded us that the chair is not empty.
     The risen Christ sits there and promises to come again and make all things new.
     Let’s remind ourselves of this good news of our faith by standing as you are able and we will recite the Apostles’ Creed found in the back of your hymnal, No. 881.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;*
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic** church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

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