Third Sunday after Epiphany

Today begins an experiment for you and an experiment for me. For the next twelve
months we embark together on a homiletical journey testing whether a retired minister
still has any preaching chops, and whether a carmel-ized congregation is willing to
stretch themselves theologically. Simply put, it comes down to me preaching to you
seven times this year. All you have to do is show-up in the sanctuary or online, and all I
have to do is put-up something from this pulpit that is not half-baked or fully absurd. In
fact, Shelly has given me carte blanche to preach on any topic or theme, and she has
given me permission to name names if it comes to that. Not your names, of course, but
the names of anyone who has tangled with the Gospel of Christ, in a good way or a
more convoluted way.
And that includes me. One of the joys of being a retired minister is that one is not
beholden to any one congregation for one’s paycheck. That means that I can follow the
Holy Spirit down any rabbit hole she wants to go. If the Spirit wants me to preach about
climate change, I’m going to bring the thunder. If the Spirit wants me to preach about
money, I’m going to cash the check. If the Spirit causes me to stray into the forbidden
zones of politics or Big Ten basketball or Carmel roundabouts, who am I to say No to
the Spirit?
So, that’s what we’re doing seven times this year. Blame Shelly if you want. Or blame
me. Or blame the Holy Spirit. But mostly, show up. Theology is all around us, all the
time. And the best we can do is to see it and talk about it and live it. And that is the
challenge for you and for me. Thank you for the opportunity to share some theology with
you. Here we go:
This morning, scripture reveals a kind of tug-of-war that exists in our lives. In a
tug-of-war two opposites are pulling at each other, creating a tension that brings unease
and anxiety. It happens to all of us, and it happened in Jesus’ life.
Specifically, Matthew describes the moment when Jesus heard that his cousin, John,
who we know as John the Baptist, was arrested. John had been preaching about
repentance and obedience to God, and crowds of people swarmed around him. John
became so popular, too popular, that King Herod put him in prison.
For Jesus, this was a critical moment of tension. John, the very one who had baptized
Jesus, his cousin from another mother, was in prison, awaiting his death sentence. But
Jesus was in a totally different place emotionally, about to embark on his journey of
love. And so, there was this tense tug-of-war of emotions pulling him both ways at once.
There was the evil of kingdom politics on one hand, and there was the beauty of divine
righteousness on the other hand. There was the possible death of John pulling one way,
and there was life, joy, peace of the Gospel pulling the other way. And to cope with this
tug-of-war, this clashing of emotions, we read in Matthew, that Jesus sought some time
to deal with this tension. He withdrew into Galilee where he remembered what Isaiah
had spoken about darkness and light, two other opposites. Isaiah said that we sit in
darkness, but we see a great light.
For you and me, tension like this is part of our everyday routine. Maybe we don’t have a
cousin in jail awaiting a death sentence, but we have a child in distress or we have an
older parent with Alzheimers or we have a friend who empties two bottles of wine every
night. In some form or another, dangerous, dastardly darkness is dragging us down to
despair, while in the other direction, good people and real hope for the future defines the
light that shines in our darkness.
On Christmas Eve, most of you know that Shelly was sick and she had asked if I could
lead worship that evening. No doubt that was enormous tension for her. If there are two
worship services ministers don’t want to miss during the year, they are Easter and
Christmas Eve. They both are beautiful services, attendance is large and you can
preach short homilies. It is a win-win for everyone.
So it was a tense moment for Shelly but it was a fun moment for me because in
retirement I never thought I would lead a Christmas Eve service again. Everyone here
had that warm, Christmas spirit, and the service went well and Jenni and I got home
around 9:30 p.m. and as the poem goes, she was in…in her ‘kerchief, and I was in my
cap, and we had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,…when my phone rang.
And for me, it was immediate tension. A phone call at 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve does
not bode well. And it didn’t.
You see, Jenni and I are part of a team of friends that help a refugee family from
Sudan… two parents and three young children. They called to say that the water in their
home had stopped working. Knowing that it was about 5 degrees outside, I figured that
their pipes had frozen and getting someone to help them on Christmas Eve was not
going to happen. And so, on the night of our Savior’s birth, I couldn’t help them.
Imagine being them, living in a strange land, no English, three young children, freezing
cold outside and no running water.
It was a dis-spiriting moment for Christmas Eve. It was tense. The darkness was pulling
on them, pulling on me and the darkness was winning. Only an hour before that I had
held a candle right in the middle of the Chancel and said, “the light shines in the
darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” But then, right there, on the phone in
my kitchen, my gosh, the darkness was most certainly overcoming the light.
Maybe that is what Jesus felt when he heard that John was arrested. It is probably what
we feel when life batters us with crisis after crisis after crisis. We want the light, we want
the tension to ease, but day by day, year by year, the one certainty we have in life is that
tension exists. It is always there, unsettling our minds and tearing at our faith.
I promised you a little theology today, and so, here it is: God exists in the tension of our
lives. We want to believe that God is hanging out in the paradise of heaven where it is
72 and sunny, and ministers don’t get sick on Christmas Eve, and pipes never freeze
and homilies are always brief. But a perfect world is not a place for God. In fact, God
isn’t even needed in a perfect world. God is needed in a world of tension. As our
Presbyterian confession says, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”
The place where we recognize God then, happens mostly in the tension of our lives,
when we need God the most. When the hazards of life hit us the hardest, we can do
what Jesus did in Galilee, we can retreat and regroup and remember the words of
Isaiah, … “that the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, for them light
has dawned.”
These days, when do you sit in darkness? When does the tension affect you the most?
Maybe it is in the push/pull of a family conflict. Maybe it is an unspoken grief of a loved
one lost. Maybe it is the helpless sense that the world is spiraling into an abyss. Maybe
it is just the dull ache that something in your life is off kilter, or that you lack direction or
focus or purpose. Maybe it’s just you, having a bad day.
But wherever the tension settles into your life, there too is God. God exists in the
tension of our lives. So God promises us the light of the world, but God doesn’t deny the
darkness of the world. Matthew tells us that Jesus retreated into Galilee and he
regrouped. Then he emerged into the light, and called his disciples and announced the
good news of God’s love…all the while knowing he was headed to death. His personal
tug-of-war was relentless.
There is no magic formula to ease the tension in your life. Whether you are a prince or a
pauper or a Presbyterian you will always be pulled back and forth between darkness
and light. That’s how life happens to us. Faith in the promise of God though, is the holy
gift that sustains us during the worst times and blesses us in the best times. Faith is the
assurance that in the tug-of-war in life, God is our anchor and never leaves us.
A week ago I read an essay by the Indianapolis author, John Green, who wrote “The
Fault in Our Stars.” In the essay, he referred to a song from the 1945, Rogers and
Hammerstein musical “Carousel.” The song is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the lyrics
are pertinent to the emotional tug-of-war that we experience. I would love to sing this
song to you but that would only add to the tension of your life. And so I will recite the
words. They go like this:
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark
Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
For your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
There it is again, the admission that life always straddles a tension, between dark and
light, between storms and golden skies, between good dreams and bad dreams. And it
may sound trite. It may sound simple. But faith in God promises that through every one
of these circumstances of life, the good, the bad and the ugly, you’ll never walk alone.
YNWA. You’ll never walk alone.
Friends, it is a tense world we live in. Thank God we’re not alone in it.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God. Amen.

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