Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 26: Guest Sermon by Kelvin Spooner

Praising God in Times of Distress  
On Psalm 13

Note: Elder Kelvin Spooner is our Seminary Intern this summer. He is also Vice President of the historic Elmendorf Reformed Church of Harlem. Kelvin will be preaching most Sundays this summer.
Giving honor to God who is the head of my life; to Pastor Meeter, the shepherd of this flock in the Body of Christ; to the Consistory and Great Consistory of Old First; to all the members and guests gathered here today: Thank you for the opportunity to worship and fellowship with you this summer.  Standing in front of you in this cathedral-like setting felt a bit overwhelming the first time I walked through the doors, but the words of welcome and encouragement that I have received from you has decreased some of my anxiety and I look forward to working with you this summer.
As you know, I am a seminarian at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary and your pastor, Dr. Meeter, is one of my professors and now he is one of my mentors. I know that I will learn much from his vast experience and knowledge.  Preaching every week this summer is a new experience for me, but by the grace of God, He will give me a Word to share with you that reveal the glorious wonders of our heavenly Father, the grace and mercy of the Son, Jesus Christ; and the movement of the blessed Holy Spirit in our lives.  I pray we will learn and grow in spirit and truth together as we take this journey side by side over the next two months.
Prayer - God of grace and truth, without you I can do nothing as I ought.  Clothe me with your Sprit, that with joy and reverence I may lead the worship of your people and worthily proclaim the gospel of your love to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.
This morning I want to speak on the topic: Praising God During Times of Distress based on Psalm 13.  Distress is a human emotion that all of us experience during the course of our lives.  When we are distressed we are at a low place in our lives.  When we are distressed we sense, feel, and experience grief, suffering, pain, anguish, agony, and misery.  We hear and read about, on a daily basis, of how people are distressed. I can only imagine the distress of the families who lost their loved ones in the pharmacy store massacre in Medford L.I.; or the distress of the families of the young man killed recently right here in Brooklyn for bumping in to another person at a party.  Most, if not all, of us have experienced distress over the loss of a loved one.  But distress occurs not only when we experience the pain of death, but in many other situations in our lives.  The tough economic times we are in has caused many people to lose their jobs and left wondering how they will make ends meet (I was one that lost my job because of it, but thank God, I was able to find another one); broken relationships in marriages and in families, and sickness (both physical and mental), are just a few of the areas that can cause much distress. When we look biblically, the story of Job is a heartfelt story of a person in great distress that suffered tremendous personal tragedy. (If you are unfamiliar with the story of Job, I encourage you to read it. It is a fascinating book in the Old Testament). And our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ experienced the greatest distress of all by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross for our sake.
It is during these times of distress that we may wonder: How do we pray when our hearts are broken?  When the events of our lives have turned us upside down and God has done nothing to prevent it?  How can we pray when we are angry with God?  When the One in whom we’ve put our trust no longer seems trustworthy?  These questions have been raised for centuries and to find some answers we can look to the Psalms.  I have heard it said, Dr. Meeter, I think I might have heard it from you, that the Psalms is the hymn book of the Bible.  The Psalms are the voice of the people collected over several centuries, of ancient Israel.  It is the poetry of the Hebrew people and it vividly expresses individual and collective thoughts, emotions, and feelings in their living, in their worship, and in their relationship with God.  And their voices may certainly apply to our thoughts, emotions and feelings in our living, in our worship, and in our relationship with God today. 
In this hymn book of the Bible there are many different kinds of songs, there are songs of praise, there are songs of thanksgiving, there are wisdom psalms, liturgical psalms, and royal psalms.  But the type of psalm we will examine today is the song or prayer of lament, which Psalm 13 belongs to.  A lament is a complaint, an objection, and a protest of what God is, or is not doing in our lives.  During times of distress we question or get angry with God.  I remember a couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine passed away.  He was a person I knew since high school and we are/were about the same age.  He was a devout and mature Christian who was an inspiration to me.  He thought he had the flu but was diagnosed with cancer in February of that year.  By December of the same year he was gone.  Why did God take away this devoted husband this ambassador for Christ?  It did not make sense to me and for a while I became angry with God for taking my brother in Christ away.
The psalmist in Psalm 13 was experiencing his own anguish and this psalm reveals three themes to us of how we can praise God during our times of distress.  The first theme contained in (vs. 1, 2) reveals to us and allows us to know that during times of distress we can show our disillusionment and disappointment to God (We can let God know how hurt, upset, angry we may be).  The psalmist asks God four times, “How long?” How long will you forget me?  How long will you hide  your face from me?  How long must I bear this pain?  How long will my enemy be exalted over me?  Each successive complaint becomes more harsh and intense.  The psalmist is crying out to God from the depths of his soul.  No holds, barred; no holding back.  No hiding how he truly feel.  In our times of distress we must open our hearts and be completely honest with God with what is on our hearts and what we are feeling.
The psalmist in (vs. 3, 4) calls on God to answer him.  It is not a passive petition but an active one.  We do not know the problem or situation that the psalmist is facing but he is not asking God to resolve the problem, he is expecting God to fix the situation. When we are open and completely honest with God we may petition Him for a response. Psalms 5 says it best, “Give ear to my words O Lord, consider my sighing.  Listen to my cry for help my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”  In our times of distress, we can make our requests known to God, lay them before His throne of grace and wait in expectation, in anticipation, knowing He will respond.
In (vs. 5, 6), the psalmist suddenly shifts from anguish to praise.  His attitude changes from complaining to God to complimenting God; he moves from the language of protesting to the language of praise.  The text does not reveal if the psalmist’s particular problem is solved, but the text does reveal a number of aspects about the psalmist’s relationship with God.  First, the psalmist trusts God.  Trust is all about being dependable, trust is about being reliable, trust is about having confidence in, and the psalmist is confident in God. He knows that he can depend on God. Second, the psalmist knows that God’s love is steadfast. Steadfast love is God’s unchanging love, steadfast love is God’s unconditional love, steadfast love is God’s unending love, and steadfast love is God’s everlasting love.  Third, God has saved the psalmist and God has rescued him, which is a cause for celebration. The thing about distress is that it happens not once, not twice, but several times over the course of our lives. Fourth, the psalmist knows that God has been good to him in the past and God will always be good to him. Fifth, the psalmist understands who he is and who he belongs to. He addresses God personally by calling him “my God”. They have a relationship. They have history. They talk to one another. And we have that same opportunity. I love the way our Heidelburg Catechism, in its first question, What is your only comfort, in life and in death, frames for us to whom we belong: That I belong-body and soul, in life and in death-not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.  Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
In our times of distress, we can praise God because He desires for us to be totally open and honest with Him; we can lay our requests before Him and wait in expectation; because of His steadfast, unchanging and unconditional love for us, we can be confident that He will respond, rescue, remain at our side no matter what pain, suffering or anguish we may be experiencing; and we can go to God because we belong to Him, in body and in soul, in life and in death.
To Him who loves us and freed us from our sins by His blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:5-6). 

Friday, June 17, 2011

June 19: Trinity Sunday: Commissioned by the Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Our gospel lesson is the last five verses at the end of Matthew, the final words of Jesus to his disciples. We call these final words the Great Commission. The commission includes our using a new name for God. Now, you know that God has several names. In Genesis 1, God is Elohim, the plural form of El, or Al, or Allah. In Genesis 17, with Abraham, God used the name El-Shaddai, or God Almighty. In Exodus 3, God commissioned Moses to use a new name, Yahweh, or Adonai, the Lord, the Eternal. In Matthew Jesus commissions us with a new name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three names together, always together, the name in which we are baptized, the name which defines how we relate to God.

Three discrete names means three discrete persons, one of them being Christ himself. He is God, but a different person than his Father, as is the Holy Spirit. Three names, three persons, and yet one God. The unity of the one God has a texture which Jesus opens up to us by means of this new name. Not that he explains it, but he commissions it. We accept the commission, though it is challenging. It’s not for convenience that we confess the Holy Trinity, but from obedience.

The doctrine of the Trinity has tested the church throughout the centuries. It’s been the cause of conflicts and an excuse for wars. Our original conflict with Islam was because it was Unitarian, not because it was violent—Christendom was just as violent. Our supposed rationale for persecuting Jews was the crime of Unitarianism. To be a Unitarian of any sort was punishable by death. Such defensiveness of a doctrine suggests a fragile doctrine.

The presenting problem of the Trinity is the status of the person of Jesus: how can Jesus be God, and not his Father, and we still say that God is One? It is a stretch. It took the Apostles years to work it out. Well, it took years for Columbus to work out that he landed in a new world, not the Orient. It took rethinking everything. The resurrection forced the disciples to rethink everything they knew of God. I suspect that even Jesus, before his resurrection, did not fully comprehend his status and identity.

The status of Jesus is the problem for Jews and Muslims and Unitarians, but the problem for many Christians is the status of the Holy Spirit. Last month some of us were discussing the difficulties of the Christian faith, what we found problematic, and two of you said that you didn’t get the Holy Spirit thing. God the Father, yes, God the Son, yes, but why speak of the Holy Spirit as a separate person? The Spirit is an energy, a force, a power, a wind, a breath, a fire, a dove.

Well, I am commissioned to teach it to you as best I can, though no one fully can. The Trinity is unique, incomparable, incomprehensible, as it must be if it is God. If I said I had it fully figured out and I could neatly explain it, that would tell you not to believe me. We only have analogies and images, which all break down.

Let me use the image of a tree. God the Father is the trunk of the tree. God the Son is the branches and the leaves. And God the Holy Spirit is the seeds. If you look at a tree you see the trunk and the branches and leaves, but not the seeds. A seed falls to the ground, and it is hidden in the earth. But the seed is the concentrated essence of the tree. More so than the trunk or the branches or the leaves. The seed at one point is a tree in full. No matter how tiny, the seed has the soul of the tree in it, all the concentrated tree-ness of a tree, which will open up with all the textures of a growing tree. You could say that a tree is one seed’s strategy for making other seeds. Which would be wrong. A tree in its reality is the dynamic movement from the compact unity of a seed into the textured richness of the tree and back again into the seed.

The Holy Spirit is the soul of God and the concentration of God. The Holy Spirit is more purely and essentially God than are the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is not an add-on, but the deepest self of God, the deeper personality behind the majestic personality of the Father and the comely personality of the Son. The Holy Spirit is the most essential God because that is what God is, pure spirit, the purest spirit that there is, the great spirit, the original spirit, without limit, without boundary, unconstrained and uncontainable, without sex or gender, neither male nor female. If God is anything, God is spirit, purely and wholly spirit, God is the holiest of spirits.

It’s a common mistake to think of the Father as the essential God, that the Father is the one God we believe in with Jews and Muslims, and then we add Jesus, so that we have God and Jesus. That mistake is rightly criticized by Jews and Muslims. The God of Abraham and Moses is not the first person–God the Father–to which we Christians add a second. No, the God of Abraham and Moses is the undivided Spirit who is holy, holy, holy.

We didn’t see the Father in God until Jesus spoke to God that way, and we didn’t see the Son in God until the resurrection. We began to see their distinctive personalities, the Fatherly personality of one and the child-like of the other, which we can relate to, because of the way God made us. But both their personalities express the hidden personality of the Holy Spirit, which is going to be harder for us to relate to, because it is purely spiritual. The personality of the Holy Spirit has to be hard for us because it’s not like a parent and not like a child, it has no human analogy, it has a personhood which is purely God and a personality absolutely unique, which must of course remain a mystery to us. It is the point that we might not see the need of it, because this third person is absolutely God without clear reference to our human experience. And it’s the character of this personality to be hidden. Not absent, but hidden, as hidden as a seed, as hidden in you as the life that fills your body, which no scientist can isolate.

We are told enough about the Spirit’s personality to know that the Holy Spirit does love fellowship. Look, just as the seed loves to open up into the fulness of the richness of the tree, so the soul of God loves to open up into the fellowship of three persons. And this same soul of God wants fellowship with us. The Holy Spirit comes to us. It enters us and is hidden in our lives. For love. The Spirit is so loving that it keeps saying “you, you, you,” not “me, me, me.” And it keeps pointing away from itself to the persons of the Father and the Son. But it is a person who does that, who enters you, with preferences and initiative, it is the Lord, the Lord in your life and the giver of your life.

The take home today is your commission. Let me set it up. You have two commissions: the one from Jesus in Matthew and the one from God in Genesis 1:28. God commissioned the male and female to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over every living thing. But we executed our commission sinfully, filling the earth with violence and subduing it with greed and with the dominion of our misery. Thus all of God’s investment in salvation from Abraham to Moses to Israel to Jesus and his death and resurrection, for his teaching and his authority, for the salvation of the world and all the nations of the world, by means of us who are commissioned by our baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are Christians in order to be proper human beings, not the other way around. Salvation is not against creation, but for the restoration of creation, only the new creation will be richer and deeper and more lovely from the sadness that it knows.

You need to have power in the world. According to Psalm 8:6, that’s what it means to be a human being. But your personal power must always be under the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Your power must always serve the glory of the Father, not yourself and nothing else. In the name of the Son, your power is humble and repentant, seeking reconciliation. In the name of the Holy Spirit, your power is always exercised in fellowship and love, never on your own, and never for yourself. That kind of power is the hidden power of the soul of God in you, a power which must always feel like Love.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

June 5, Ascension Sunday: Purpose and Power, Comfort and Joy

Acts 1:1-11,
Psalm 47,
Ephesians 1:15-23,
Luke 24:44-53

Thursday was Ascension Day. Ascension Day used to be a major holiday, and it’s still a public holiday in those countries in Europe which keep the connection of church and state. It’s kept a holiday so that people have off from work to go to church. Well, in America we don’t have the mind for such things anymore, and we think we don’t have the time for such observances, so we mark it on the Sunday following, which is today. But we still mark it because the Ascension of Jesus is an important doctrine and one of the major facts and mysteries in the Apostles Creed.

It strikes me that as you work your way down the Apostles Creed the things in it get gradually harder to believe. I mean it’s not that hard to believe that God created the heavens and the earth. Most people on the planet believe that, in one form or another. It’s not that hard to believe that Jesus was born of a Virgin; modern biology has begun to mimic that all the time in laboratories, and some species of creatures have always generated life that way. It’s not hard to believe that Jesus suffered and was crucified and buried. That’s actually attested in the documents of history.

But then you get to the resurrection, and that’s harder to believe, at least if you take it as it was first proclaimed, that he was resurrected in his body, not just in his soul. And then the Ascension is even harder to believe. Not if you just believe that Jesus went to heaven in his soul, because that kind of idea is assumed by most of the religions on the planet, and even by many of the philosophies. But to believe that he ascended into heaven in his body; that’s more difficult, and it’s much harder to imagine. It’s beyond our reckoning, both in its character and its meaning. And its meaning is complex.

But the Bible treats it as important. St. Luke is the most careful historian in the Bible, and he reports it twice, in our first reading from the Book of Acts and in our Gospel reading. And then the meaning of it is set out several times, especially by St. Paul, and especially in the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which the Ascension is a controlling theme. And neither St. Luke or St. Paul had seen it with their own two eyes. The other apostles all had seen it, but not those two, for they were not yet believers when it happened. So they are the ones who best communicate it to the rest of us, throughout the centuries, who would never see it either.

It happened between Easter and Pentecost. We think of those as Christian holidays, but for the disciples they were still the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuoth. It was forty days after Passover and ten till Shavuoth. You can see the Ascension as the completion of Easter and the prerequisite of Pentecost. The Ascension is about both body and soul, and flesh and spirit. It’s the vindication of Jesus in the flesh and his inauguration as the giver of the Holy Spirit. The Ascension is about both history and eternity. It’s about history in his coronation as the Messiah of Israel and about eternity as his exaltation as the Son of God. It’s both a completion and a commencement. It’s the completion of his special work on earth, for which the Lord became a human being and incarnated in human flesh, and one of us, and it’s the commencement of his special work in heaven, at the right hand of his Father, the work for which he maintains his incarnation, the work for which he is still a human being, still one of us.

For us. And how for us? Four things today. Purpose and power, and comfort and joy. Let me start with purpose and power. The Ascension is for our purpose as Christians, and for the power we have to do our purpose.

Our purpose as Christians is to be witnesses. Witnesses to his Lordship and witnesses of what life is like within the Kingdom of God. Witnesses of what life can be whenever we honor him as Lord. For a few of us with special callings, that witness is witnessing in the narrow sense of proclamation or evangelism. That has its place, but it is not for everyone. It is for those who are given special gifts for that, as it is explained in a chapter four of this epistle. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t feel called to go out and do that kind of witnessing. There is a much more challenging kind of witnessing which is for most of us, and that’s the witnessing that you do in terms of daily human life. What you buy, and why you buy it. What you spend, and why you spend it. How you eat, and why you eat that way. Who gets invited to your table, and why. Whom you serve, and why you serve that way. Whom you love and how you love and why you love that way. How you sing and dance. What you rejoice about it, what you take pleasure in. What you suffer, and how you suffer, how you deal with those who make you suffer and how you deal with the pain from it. How you deal with loss and how you deal with abundance, how you deal with death and how you deal with birth, how you are a human being, what it means to be a human being in the world of which Jesus is the Lord. That kind of witnessing is challenging, and needy people notice it.

That’s your purpose, and to fulfill you purpose you are given power. That power comes from the Holy Spirit, which I will say more about next week, on the feast of Pentecost. But the gift of Pentecost depends on the Ascension, for Jesus went to heaven make room for us, and to send the Holy Spirit to empower us who take his place. This power is not given you just for anything. And if you crave it you will not get it. It is the power to be a witness, which includes the power to face your losses and your death, as well as your successes and abundance, which are more difficult.

His Ascension is for comfort and for joy. For comfort, because the Lord of heaven and earth is a wounded human being, who bears our flesh and feels our frailty, but who is fully able to guide the world to his chosen goal. So despite what’s in the news, despite how fearful the world may get, or your distress with how things are going, your disappointment by your own personal performance, your lack of success in many things, the aging of your body, the fraying of your relationships, and the frustration of your aims, you can take comfort in his Lordship. It’s hard to believe, but you can believe him, and from the step of belief you can take the step of worshiping him, and that you will discover that worshiping him comes back to you in comfort.

And for joy. We read that the disciples departed with great joy, despite all that they did not understand. How joyful are you in your life? One of the chief goals of the Christian life is joy. Why are you a Christian? “To be joyful,” that has to be a great part of your answer. And here’s the deal: if you want to be more joyful, increase the measure of the Lordship of Jesus in your life. The joy in your life is a function of his Lordship in your life. Here’s a take home for today: If you want more joy, then you want more Lordship.

Let me encourage you to choose this joy. I don’t mean just enjoyment, not just entertainment, not the idolatry of fun and pleasure to which we are in bondage in America, but joy. Deep joy in the soul. Self-forgetting joy, like self-forgetting love, a joy that cannot be defended nor fully be explained. This joy hangs on Jesus’ Lordship. It is not spontaneous, and you cannot generate it in yourself. You have to choose for it, and that means choosing against some other precious things to you. If you want it, seek his Lordship. Learn the life within his kingdom. Learn to trust his kind of power and praise his kind of greatness and kneel before his love. It always comes down to love. For myself, I have so much joy in my life because I experience so much love in my life, and because I believe in his Lordship, I can see how all that love in my life has its source in God’s inexpressible and irrepressible love for us.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.