At the Water's Edge: Look for the Helpers

June 18, 2017
Nate Schipper
Exodus 2:1-10

One of my favorite shows growing up was Mister Roger’s neighborhood. You remember the tune, don’t you?

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

What’s even more amazing than the song is the fact that he could sing the song perfectly while taking of his jacket and hanging it in the closet and sitting on the bench to take off his outdoor shoes and putting on his house slippers. It was a magical show in many ways, especially for those of us kids in the 80’s who had to put up with punk haircuts and MC Hammer Pants. Mr Rogers had a nostalgic way about him. He was a reminder of what the moral life looked like. You VBS Kids might know Daniel the Tiger’s neighborhood, but that’s nothing compared to Mr. Rogers.

What you may not know is that Mister Rogers was also a theologian. He was a graduate of Pittsburg Theological and was ordained in our cousin denomination the Presbyterian Church. His witness was not explicit in his television but his words often spoke to the deepest truths of the gospel.

He is remembered for many quotes, many interviews that conveyed these truths to broader public. One of those quotes is not something he said but a reference to a line his mother gave him. In an interview about how he conveys complex situations to simple minded children the interviewer asked him about how he explains crisis or natural disasters to children. Mr. Rogers said, “My mother always taught me, amidst the crisis, the disasters, to look for the helpers, there you will find hope. The news cameras like to focus on the crisis, the victim the cause of the crisis. I wish they would also pan to the helpers, because every time a crisis hits there are helpers who are making the situation better. They are the ones who bring hope.” I want us to take our cue from Mr. Rogers this morning. Amidst the crisis of our story let’s look to the helpers for Hope.

We just heard a fascinating story from the book of Exodus. It’s a story of intrigue, deliverance, irony, and even humor. But it’s also a story of Hope, of hope in the face of crisis and this morning I would like to explore with you some of the “helpers” in the story.

The story takes place in Egypt, in a foreign land to our main characters the Hebrew people. You remember how they got there – Jacob had 12 sons, one whom he favored more than all the others named Joseph who ended up – after being sold into slavery - becoming friends with the Pharoah. His relationship with the Pharaoh made it possible for his father and brothers many years later, amidst a drought in their own land, to relocate to Egypt where their grain bins were full- thanks to Joseph’s prophecy.

Those days are long past though. We are a couple generations after that story and the people of God, the Hebrews, don’t have a relationship with the new Pharaoh in town. Meanwhile, the Hebrew people have fulfilled their creation mandate and are multiplying at a more rapid rate than the native Egyptians. The new pharaoh has a problem, a demographics problem. Their power may soon be threatened by the rise of the Hebrew people. Pharaoh was in tough spot. How would he protect the safety of his people? Faced with threat he has a choice- share power or use power to oppress. He chooses the latter.

In Chapter 1 of Exodus we know that Pharaoh dealt with this demographics problem by enslaving the Hebrew men and trying to control the expanding population by instructing Egyptian midwives to kill all the boys they deliver. When that plan doesn’t work Pharaoh sets forth a decree that all baby Hebrew boys must be thrown into the Nile River.

This is the context of our story - A world where the Hebrew people are enslaved, and all boys are to be put to death, a world of oppression and darkness, pain and subjugation.

In such a situation where do we find hope? Who do we look towards? Let’s take our cue from Mr. Rogers and turn our graze from the main characters of the story and look towards the helpers – those who’s unnoticed work bring hope to the brokenness of a situation.

The main character in our story is a baby boy. A boy who’s deliverance is a foreshadowing of the deliverance he will bring to his people. A boy whose life is at risk and whose life is preserved by the faithful helpers.

TIME OUT - I know that this is Father’s day but this story, while fathers not named because they are likely subject to slave like working environments is about 3 women. SORRY DADS, but we know we are who we are because of the women in our lives. This story is really about 3 women, well 1 woman and likely 2 young girls.

Amidst the threat of death of her son the first helper must be the boy’s mother. Moms deeply love their children, moms will do everything they can to save their children. In her moment of desperation though mom doesn’t just throw her hands up and ask God to save her son, she takes action. She builds an ark, the same word for her contraption is in Genesis 6 – when Noah builds an ark. It is a vessel without a rudder – what it lacks in direction it makes up for in preservation.

Mother places the ark in the reeds of the Nile River. I don’t this isn’t the kind of biblical beachside Pastor Lindsay was talking about last week. I thought we were supposed to be kicking back and relaxing in the biblical narrative – drinking from the well spring of life. This doesn’t seem like relaxing to me. While we know this ARK can float, we have no idea what is going to happen to this baby and neither does she! She places her rudderless vessel in the reeds with no idea what will happen.

TIME OUT – Wait a minute. Last week Pastor Lindsay said we were taking a jaunt through the “Biblical beach-sides.” We were going to soak in the relaxation of the summer and drink from the living water. This situation, this “beach-side” does not feel all that relaxing to me. A mother letting go of her 3 month old son on the banks of the Nile River!? What?

Can you imagine the anxiety she must have felt, the fear, the grief, the sadness? Can you imagine her desperation?

Have you been there before? Have you clung to something, clung to SOMEONE as tightly as you can knowing you will soon have to let it go? Knowing that you too will have to say good bye…

Her presence in the story is short, but the mother’s actions are what distinguish her.
When we look to the mother as helper we see a woman who in her desperation does everything she can to preserve the life of her son. She risks her own life by hiding the son for 3 months, she builds the son an ark, and then finally she orders her daughter to keep an eye on the baby.

Our next helpers in the story are 2 young women, maybe even girls, outside the purview of their parents, on their own at the bank of the Nile River.

We have the daughter of a slave family, whose task it is to do the one thing her mother couldn’t stand to do- keep an eye on her brother. She does what most big sisters do, she’s a babysitter...

We also have a princess so to speak, the daughter of pharaoh, a girl from a family with power, privilege and resources who is simply heading down to the river to bathe.

Two young women, two young girls from opposite family backgrounds who share nothing in common and find themselves here, at the Water’s Edge, on the banks of the Nile River.

Then, IT happens.

The young princess hears the cries of the baby boy and sees the ark floating in the reeds. She calls for her attendants to fetch the basket.

The sister of the child freaks. This isn’t what his supposed to happen, this boy was supposed to survive for just a few more days it wasn’t supposed to be found by the hands of the enemy! I can’t imagine what the sister would be thinking – my one job was to keep an eye on this baby boy and now the enemy found her. What am I going to tell mom? I can’t possibly make this stuff up.

The princess approaches the ark and opens the basket to find a baby, a HEBREW baby crying, and she is moved with Pity. Another word for it is she is moved with compassion. She see’s this vulnerable child, this completely helpless baby, and she is moved with compassion for this foreigner, this stranger, this child her father wants her to throw directly into the Nile. And she hears a voice – a voice of a young girl sheepishly saying… “Shall I find a Hebrew woman, a slave, to nurse this child for you?”

What a RISK this young girl is making. Could she see the compassion on the princess face? Did she know when the princess didn’t throw him directly back into the water that she had a chance? She risked her very life and asked offered a solution to the princess.

The princess took a significant risk, a HUGE risk of her own. How is she going to explain this one to her dad? How will she tell him that she found a baby boy, a HEBREW boy, and decided to adopt him into their home rather than throw him into the Nile? Not only that- how will she justify using her dad’s monetary resources to pay this slave woman to nurse the child!

It is a story that only be credited to the one character in the story who is not once mentioned, God. God’s name is never mentioned, his presence though is not far away. This is divine irony: A slave boy, a boy under the curse of death is sparred from the very river he is supposed to drown in and his poor and oppressed mother gets paid to nurse this child to life. All of this happens because two young women, two helpers in the grand story of Exodus are moved with compassion and risk their lives for the sake of this vulnerable baby boy.

These helpers give the people of God, the Hebrew people Hope. One vulnerable young sister, and another a well-off foreign princess are the ones God chooses to bring hope to a desperate situation.

We live in desperate times. We live in a world where Hope can seem distant where oppression rules, and power is corrupt. Who are the helpers in our world? To whom do the news reels miss in favor of the main characters and the heart of the pain?

I heard of 2 security personnel in Alexandria, VA who when gun shots were fired drew their weapons and stood in between vulnerable congressmen and a crazed gunman.

I saw around 15 volunteers in red shirts showing love to about 25 children of migrant farm workers this week in the intense heat and sunshine for an hour each day.

I witness an army- nearly 100 to be truthful – of other red shirts showing love to the children of our community at VBS this week. Filling small cups with snacks, setting up crafts, playing games, and walking alongside of children.

We remembered the hundreds of volunteers and community leaders in Nicaragua who, with about $50/day serve 160 children a meal 6 days a week.

Exodus 2 is a story of Hope. Yes the little boy whose life was preserved would one day become the man who delivers his people from the oppressive and ruthless rule of Pharaoh. But before he can do that his story is preserved by 3 helpers, three vulnerable women who with courage and faithfulness, with compassion and grit save his life. Their stories, their names are not even mentioned in this story but they are the helpers, they are the ones in whom we find hope. And this is the divine Irony of the story – God uses, God calls the weak, the low, the despised in the world to share with the strong. God continues to use ordinary people, people like you and me, to be his Helpers. To join with Him in redeeming the world.

For Exodus 2 is a great story, it’s a great story of the Helpers who preserved the life of Moses the deliverer of the Israelites. But his story is just the beginning it’s the foreshadowing of the true deliverer. The true deliverer will also be born into oppression. The true deliverer’s life will also be preserved by his mother. The true deliverer whose life is not only preserved but also offered so that all of humanity might be delivered from their pain and brokenness. It is the true deliverer who invites us to be His helpers.

Renee Krueger
At the Water's Edge: The Great Swiftness

June 11, 2017
Lindsay Small
Genesis 2:4-14

A few months ago a photographer from the congregation, Dave DeHaan, showed us a picture he had taken of the church building… from his drone. It was pretty amazing…but the striking thing about the picture wasn’t the vast parking lot, or to be honest, even the building… it was the great big blue expanse that stretched out across the picture…just over the hill from the church.

I knew the lake was close. You can hear it from the parking lot on a windy day…you can SEE Lakeshore Dr. I knew the only thing separating us from the lake was a line of trees and some really expensive real estate…but to see it from that perspective…was stunning.

I’ve spent much of my life in West Michigan…and so the lake has been a part of my life since I was very young. And over the years, I experienced that immensely satisfying feeling of bringing people to the lake who have never seen it before…have you ever experienced this?

It’s so great…especially if they’re from California…and they think they have the monopoly on west facing sunsets…and then you tell them… yeah, and no sharks.

This summer, we are going to revel in our location. After all, we’ve earned it: we’ve put up with black ice, and February, and 45 degree baseball games in May. There’s been a lot going on!

It's time for summer…it's time for rest…it's time to go to the Water’s Edge.

And so each of our texts this summer will take place next to water… not just because we’re preaching them from here…but our biblical texts will be set next to water.

We begin today In Genesis…when God is setting the stage for his grand story. We will weave our way through the beaches of the

Biblical Narrative over the next few months… until we finally reach the river’s edge in Revelation.

 So much of God’s story takes place in, on, near, or beside water: waters are parted, leprosy is healed, disciples are baptized…all these things happen at the water’s edge…and we’ll visit them this summer,

And in all these stories, we’ll see how God brings rest, renewal and revival to his people at the water’s edge.

And we begin in the beginning…

As Alyssa read for us…we begin in Eden.

“A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.”

 The passage for this morning is the kind of text that is easily passed over.

It comes in the middle of the creation account…sandwiched between the creation of man and his placement in the garden. It reads more like the directions you would find on Google Maps…not an inspiring Biblical Text.

But the author of Genesis thought it was important enough to include these short verses in the creation account…wanting to tell us that from the beginning there were trees, and vegetation, and there was water.

A river…to the water the garden…and it flowed out of Eden, split into four rivers and went out to water the earth.

This was the set God decorated for us…these were the props laid out for us to use, to enjoy…and to illustrate God’s glory and creativity.

To start our series anywhere else but here would have been like jumping into a movie 10 minutes in. This passage grounds us… locates us…in the beginning…in the garden…in the water.

This is where we begin.

And this is where we return when all we feel is dry and empty.

After all, this is what water does…it gives life wherever it goes. From a house plant to humans…we see that water exists not for itself but to sustain, grow, and renew wherever it goes.

It’s always about the life it gives to others.

This is what makes it the queen of all metaphors.

Yes, there are vines, branches, soil, wineskins, lambs, and lions…and those are all well and fine.

But water!? Water reigns.

It is a universal sign for life. For growth. For refreshment. It doesn't need a background in agriculture to understand it.

We get it. Water brings life.

Fast forward a few millennia to John, chapter 7…Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating the Festival of the Tabernacles…a festival that remembered when water came out of a rock in the wilderness.

The text reads, On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Jesus is trying to explain to the people around him who he is… and he uses metaphors…stacking one on top of another so we have a bigger, fuller picture of who he is.

 And the queen metaphor was a favorite of his…

 He is the living water…the source of all life…and he brings life wherever he goes.

 But he goes on to invite us into the metaphor, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Its like he had Genesis 2 in mind…locating himself in the garden…as the river from which all other rivers flow.

Jesus, the source of all life…flows into us…the smaller rivers that flow out of Eden…and give life to a dry and arid world.

We’re invited to water the world: to leave more life in a place than when we first entered it.

(Good questions to ask ourselves…did my words give life? Or minimize someone? Is there more life in the room because I was in it? Or did I take energy and ‘living water’ from a space?)

Water sustains life…living water gives life…our rivers should do the same.

Back to Genesis 2…our Google Map passages make sure to mention the names of all four rivers. And that is really interesting, I guess, if you’re into maps and Bible name pronunciations…

Turns out that with each river there is a different name and characteristic…

  • Pishon means “increase.” It is thought that this river was wide… almost a flood plain.
  • Gihon means “to gush forth,” this river flooded its banks often and was thought to overflow.
  • Tigris means “rapid,” there’s a sense of movement and excitement.
  • Euphrates means “fruitfulness.” This river provided nourishment to the vegetation around it.

Four names, four rivers, four different types of rivers.

Beloved author Richard Foster has written a book called, “Streams of Living Water” and I would commend it to you for summer reading… especially given our series.

In the book he talks about six streams of Christian Living…each of them describing a different aspect of the Christian life.

  • Contemplative
  • Holiness
  • Charismatic
  • Social Justice
  • Evangelical
  • Incarnational

And he names the attributes of each of these streams…while always returning to the truth that Jesus embodies all the disciplines of these streams.

I found it fascinating that four of them match up so well with the Rivers of Eden…

  • The Contemplative Stream calls us to a life of prayer. Like the Pishon, it is a vast and fertile place…a place to retreat as Jesus did… down to the quiet riverbanks…to spend time with God.
  • The Charismatic Stream invites us to gush forth with the Spirit like the Gihon. To flood the nations with the overflow that has been given to us.
  • The Social Justice Stream calls for Justice to roll down like a mighty water…much like the Tigris. The rapids are rough, the challenge confrontational, but working to the other side is a must. We too are to rage with righteousness through dry and deserted lands.
  • And then there is the Evangelistic Stream…a stream that invites all people to enter into a living and abundant life with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…much like the abundance provided by the Euphrates.

Four streams…each one of them important. They call us to a prayer- filled, Spirit-guided, justice soaked, good news proclaiming life. (I would add Streams of Holiness and Incarnation to the list as well…but I ran out of rivers…)

The text is clear that the rivers in Genesis are flowing OUT…out of Eden and into the world. And Jesus says that the rivers of living water gush forth from our hearts…

When our hearts are well-watered, the river flowing from us will be bless everyone around us…

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But for some of us, the rivers may have quieted a little too much. The rapids have turned to trickles…the gushing is more like sputtering.

Perhaps we haven’t even noticed…

At the back of the property of my parent’s house there is a tiny stream…one you could easily step over. It divides their property from the one behind it. Some time ago a house up the street went on the market. The house had the same stream in the backyard…and one of the features listed on the MLS was ‘waterfront property.’

There are times in our lives when our rivers have turned into a tiny brook…we still think we’re living on waterfront property…

We need the fresh water of the Spirit to pour over us…we need to open ourselves to the gushing love of Christ…as the text from John is directly translated…”Those who put their trust in me…”

Do we trust him? Have we opened ourselves to the living water? In the words of the prophet Ezekiel,

“On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Find your river…be it contemplative or charismatic…find the place that connects you to the Living Water…

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re on summer vacation after all…It’s time for a deep breath…a long walk…a pause in our daily routine.

After all, that’s when we start to notice the things around us. Shorelines that are much closer than we realized…grace that is right in front of us…stretching out with an immensity we cannot measure.

And Jesus, the living water, sits us down and invites us to drink deeply.

Renee Krueger
Empowered to Share: Gospel Lives

May 28, 2017
Nate Schipper
Romans 6:1-11

Memorial Day weekend informally serves as the start of summer.  This is the weekend people put their boats in the water, open their pools, plant their annuals, start wearing white pants (for some) and fire up the grill.  I love the anticipatory nature of Memorial Day – summer is here- well sort of for those of us in West Michigan, and we have a couple months ahead of long days and warm nights. 

So on this festive day, this holiday weekend, and the gathering of the faithful here at Fellowship why not dive into Paul’s letter to the Romans as it deals with…. SIN.  It may not be the first passage that comes to mind when we consider Memorial Day but I trust that God has something for us in it.  I trust that as we read together from Romans chapter 6 verses 1-11 that God will show us what it means for us to live gospel lives empowered by power of the Holy Spirit.

Read Romans 6:1-11

It bears repeating, “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Throughout this season after Easter we have been considering how we have been empowered to share.  As a people who BELONG to God and one another, as a people who are GROWING in their discipleship to Jesus, as a people who are SERVING Christ in this world we are also a people empowered to SHARE the good news of Jesus with those around us.

For those of you who were with us last week Pastor Brian reminded us that we have been given gifts, spiritual gifts, that Christ offers to us, that Christ hands down to us by the Spirit from his place ascended at the right hand of God.  This week I want to build off his sermon.  Romans chapter 6 is an appeal by Paul to pattern our lives after the life of Christ.  It is an appeal for us to use our God given gifts as a testimony to the work of the Spirit living inside of us for the purpose of showing the love of Christ to a lost and broken world.

A couple weeks ago I saw an interesting article titled, “Soviet’s atheism failed in Europe.”  The cover photo has a picture of a priest, in his liturgical flowing robe, holding an immersed baby in the town square.  It was a beautiful and eye-catching photo.   It certainly seemed like good news, like an interesting article, which it was but it also contained a bit of a twist.  But before I tell you what it said let’s first consider what Romans 6 says and DOES…

The first thing Romans chapter 6 does is confront the natural logic of Paul’s arguments in Chapters 4 and 5.  In these chapters Paul explicitly states that the promises of God and the righteousness of God are bestowed upon us, his people, by faith.  Faith is what justifies us.  Faith is what makes us right with God not our own works, and certainly not the law.  It is by grace we are saved through faith.  Jesus does this – Jesus makes us right with God. 

JESUS IS GOD’S ULTIMATE ANSWER TO SIN.   

These two chapters can be summarized in this famous quote from chapter 5:

Therefore just as one man’s trespass (Adam led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness (Jesus) leads to justification and life for all. 

However great Adam’s sin, however great our sin, God’s grace in Christ is greater, is sufficient to forgive us and make us right with God.

So, one might say, and apparently Paul’s readers assumed, if it is all about Jesus and his work on the cross, if SIN is an occasion for GRACE then perhaps we should just keep on living in sin so that grace may abound!?

Paul’s response to this is “BY NO MEANS.”  Paul emphatically rejects this logic.  And we do too.  This would be like the Prodigal Son, after experiencing the incredible grace of his father in throwing a party and welcoming him home asking for ANOTHER portion of his inheritance to squander all so he can come home yet again. 

For those of us that have been in the church for a while we know that we are not to concisely engage in sin.  We are really good at rejecting sin and trying to help people avoid living in it.  In fact sometimes I wonder if we might be too good.  Sometimes the church is the place of judgement and a place where we hide or cover up who we are in order to put on the appearance of living “great lives.”   

Maybe we can’t relate to Paul’s readers in that way.  Maybe we know better than to keep on sinning so that grace may abound, but how often do we, LIKE Paul’s readers come to quick conclusions about what some else is saying.  Paul was correcting the false conclusions his readers were making about what he was saying.  How often do we come to conclusions about what another is saying before we hear them out?  How often do we make meaning out of another’s words or actions?

This past week I was listening to Christian Radio.  I am not necessarily a Christian radio junky, it is #2 or #3 on my car preset list don’t get me wrong.  I tend to favor talk radio- NPR or ESPN radio are up there on my preset list.  So whenever I have kids in the car, OR NPR is doing their annual pledge drive Christian Radio is up there on my list. J

Whenever I listen to Christian Radio stations I can quickly fall into judgement, I can quickly jump to unfair conclusions about the lyrics I hear.  I have a, most likely false, working assumption that all Christian songs are about me, myself or I.  I assume Christian radio music fails to point us towards God and Christ’s reconciling work in the world.  So when I listen to it I don’t just jump to conclusions based on the lyrics they sing, I actually am looking for them to re-inforce my pre-conceived assumptions about Christian radio.

This was made clear to me as I listened to a song by Jason Gray called “I will rise again.”  As I listened critically to his lyrics about rising again, I quickly began to start thinking – you don’t rise again, Christ does that by the power of the Spirit.  Amidst my judgement I recalled a book titled, “Rising Strong,” by Brene Brown that I have read excerpts from and a number of people I love appreciate.  This book seems to touch on the same themes that Jason Grays song touches on – the same power that raised Christ from the dead is available to you by the power of the Spirit! 

What made my response different to the song than the book?  Why did I quickly judge the title of the song but not the title of the book?

It was my assumptions about what the song would say without listening to it and my tendency to listen to people I know and love.  Maybe Romans 6 is a reminder to us that we all have a tendency to make assumptions, to jump to conclusions about what someone else is saying based on our own thoughts about them.

I mean no one here has ever jumped to conclusions about what someone else is saying based on the political party they are a part of, the clothes they wear, the color of their skin, their gender or age, or the church or denomination they belong to have you?

I told you about an article I read from CT.  The headline said Atheism is failing and the data that they used to support that was that in a number of countries from the former Soviet block in Eastern Europe a majority of the people that live in those countries (sometimes 80-90%) belong to the Russian Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church.  This may seem like good news, but based on their self-disclosed survey responses about worship attendance, prayer, and their spiritual lives the article concluded, “Belonging and believing but not Behaving.”  Even our headlines have a tendency to push us to make conclusions that are not as true as we might assume.

So the first thing that Paul does is correct the false logic of his readers.  He emphatically rejects that we are to continue in sin so that grace may abound.  The SECOND thing Paul does is remind us of who we are.

Paul’s appeal in this verse is repeated in a multitude of ways but could be summarized – “In baptism you died to sin and were resurrected to new life- live like you have been baptized!”

Paul is not simply telling us DO things or BELIEVE certain things, he is reminding his readers, he is reminding us of WHO WE ARE as baptized children of God.  When we recall our own passing through the waters of baptism, whenever we have an opportunity to witness a baptism like we did just a couple weeks ago, we remember who we are:

-          We are a people who belong to God – who have been claimed BY God

-          We are a people united to Christ – in his dying AND his rising

-          We are a people entrusted with the HOLY Spirit and given gifts for life and ministry

Paul is reminding us that the Christian life is not just a mental assertion of what we believe, or a list of things we are to do, it is a unification with Christ! Being united to Christ causes us to live differently!

A couples years ago I was at a retreat with some students.  The speaker was a former hockey player so he used his hockey team as his primary metaphor for the weekend.  He talked about his hockey stick as a reminder that we have been given different gifts and tools for serving the team.  He talked about his safety equipment that served to keep him safe from attacks by the opponent, and he talked about his jersey as a mark of his allegiance to his team. 

He talked about the honor it was to be able to wear the jersey, to be physically marked as a member of his team.  For him it wasn’t a burden to wear the jersey.  It wasn’t an obligation or something he did out of guilt.  The jersey for him was a privilege.

We have been given an opportunity to play for Christ’s team, to live under the protection of the Spirit and use our gifts to serve Christ as people who have been baptized into Christ’s team.   It is an honor to play for Christ’s team to be marked as His own!

Martin Luther calls Baptism a daily garment we wear by faith.  It is daily in that it is with us every day and a garment in that it marks us, it distinguishes us as God’s chosen people.   And so, our attempts to live faithful lives, to use our Spiritual gifts to partner with Christ’s reconciling work in the world is quite simply us living more fully into the identity Christ gave us at baptism.

As we consider in this season how we might be empowered to share the good news of Jesus Christ, Paul in Romans 6 is encouraging us to use our lives as a testimony to Christ.  We have talked about being courageous witnesses, being open and available to the Spirit’s work in our lives.  We have considered practicing the art of “With-ness,” and using the Gifts God has given us, Paul is encouraging us today to be gospel people.  Let your lives testify to who you are as a baptized people.   Let us adopt the words attributed to St Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.”  You have the honor of being Christ’s hands and feet to a lost and broken world.

On Friday a team of about 20 folks from Fellowship sat with students from Lakewood Elementary under the afternoon sun.  Our own Karen Donker honored each of these Kid’s Hope students with a “most-likely” award.  The student’s joy was tangible as Karen identified each one of them with an award like, “Most-likely to be a professional soccer player.”  “Most likely to Help a friend,” “Most-likely to win a cooking contest.”  Each kid, each a unique “most-likely.”  It was a celebration of these students and the relationship their mentor had with them.  What a joy it was for them to be identified as “Most-Likely” to do something.

You have been given a gift too.  You have been deemed by God “Most-likely to represent ME on earth.”  God has initiated a relationship with you.  God knows you.  God has given you a gift and he invites you.  He HONORS you with the opportunity to use it to represent Christ in this world.

The first Q&A of our Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  We often remember the first part of the answer, “That I am not my own but belong, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.  He has fully paid for all my sins….  Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures of eternal life, AND – AND – AND, makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Because we belong to Christ we live for him.  You have been deemed worthy, you have been honored to represent Christ in this world – how will you respond?  How might WE respond?

Renee Krueger
Empowered to Share: Gifts from the King

May 21, 2017
Brian Keepers
Ephesians 4:1-16

            I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.

Let’s just think about these words for a minute: lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. What calling? To be Christ’s witnesses—those empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus.

Paul says live a life that is worthy of that calling. In other words, live a life that fits with that calling as a witness—so that the way you live lines up with who you are in Christ. And when the way we live lines up with our identity and calling in Christ, then we grow into maturity; we are living lives of integrity.

Chapter 4 of Ephesians, and the next couple chapters that finish out the letter, deal specifically with how we can live a life worthy of our calling as Christ’s witnesses. This is a familiar passage to many of us.

There’s so much I want to say about this marvelous text today, especially as it pertains to this idea of getting our living and God’s calling to fit together. I’m going to restrain myself to focus on a couple verses that tend to get overlooked. So often we focus on this wonderful beginning where Paul issues this call to unity, reminding us of our one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Or we jump ahead to Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts and their importance in building up the body of Christ in love. But not much is ever done with this odd verse that is the linchpin between these two sections:

When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; and he gave gifts to his people.

Why in the world does Paul seem to interrupt the flow of his writing with this odd sentence? And where does it come from? Well, it’s actually taken from Psalm 68, which is a vigorous psalm of celebration all about God’s magnificent acts of salvation in Hebrew history. Not only does the Psalm recall past events, but it anticipates God’s future victory as the one true King of the whole world.

The psalm begins with these words: “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered.” It then goes on to recount the ways that God goes on a salvation march across the country, taking his enemies captive along the way. The psalm culminates with God ascending the high mountain, and all people, friends and foes alike, gathering around the mountain to worship and bear gifts.

Verses 17-20 provide the material from which Paul draws for this sentence in Ephesians:

With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
Thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai in the holy place.
You ascended the high mount,
leading captives in your train
and receiving gifts from your people,
even from those who rebel
against the Lord God’s abiding there
.

Paul is not being haphazard by inserting this stanza of Psalm 68 here. As always, Paul is very intentional as both a theologian and a pastor, cutting out and stitching these verses together with the steady hand of a surgeon, so that he might shape our imaginations as to what this new life in Christ looks like.

Okay, so why is this stanza from Psalm 68 so important? Paul is using it in reference to Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father. Notice that Paul does not translate Psalm 68 literally but he condenses it and adapts it to find its fulfillment in Jesus. He does this specifically in two ways. The first I just mentioned. Rather than saying “God ascends” Paul writes that “he [Jesus] ascends.” Paul does this sort of thing all the time—equating Jesus with God (YHWH).

I’ll get to the other way in which Paul adapts the text from Psalm 68 in just a minute, but first, I want to linger a bit longer on this key truth that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus’ Ascension may be one of the most overlooked and under-celebrated events in the church’s life. We know how to celebrate Jesus’ birth (our whole society gets in on it, even if only in a secular way). We throw a good party for Easter. Even Pentecost gets made into a big deal (as it should). But Christ’s ascension is largely forgotten. Part of this reason is because Ascension Day always lands on a Thursday, never on a Sunday, and so it doesn’t get a whole worship service devoted to it.

But Jesus’ ascension must never be separated from his death and resurrection. The ascension is God’s exclamation point on the cross and the empty tomb! The ascension of Jesus is God’s vindication of the injustice and humility of the cross—the one who bore the sins and the shame of the world is now exalted to his rightful place, next to the Father in heaven, where he is crowned King of all creation and rules from on high.

Many years ago, when Emma and Abby were younger, my brother and his wife were babysitting our girls. Our oldest, Emma (6 years old at the time), decided she wanted to watch a movie. As they scavenged through all our DVDs, my brother asked Emma, “What would you like to watch?”

“Oh, I don’t really care,” she said. “Just not one of those Jesus movies!” (By “Jesus movies” she meant our DVD’s that are animated Bible stories. She wasn’t interested in watching any of those! How’s that for a ‘PK?”)

“Why not?” my brother asked her. “What’s wrong with the Jesus movies?”

“Oh, you know, they’re not very for real,” Emma answered. “They make Jesus way too small!”

I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul would agree! Yes, Jesus made himself so small as to fit cradled in the womb of a teenage girl. That’s what Paul means when he says, “The one who ascended also descended to the lowest parts of the earth.” He’s talking about the incarnation. Paul goes on to exclaim: “But the one who descended also ascended far above the highest heavens, so that he might fill all things!” It is the Ascension that announces God’s ultimate victory over sin and death and all the principalities and powers of darkness. And it is the Ascension that makes Jesus larger than life! We have a tendency to make Jesus too small!

It is the Ascension that also makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon God’s people, gathering us together, and empowering us for ministry in Jesus’ name. Paul is not calling us to try harder and to give more effort on our own strength. No, he knows that living a life worthy of our calling, that growing up in Christ, is only possible because Jesus sits on the throne and, through the Holy Spirit, pours out his strength and power.

Beyond the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul tells us that the enthroned King Jesus also hands out other gifts to his people; gifts of grace that are given according to Christ’s measure. And here is where Paul makes another key adaption to Psalm 68. You may recall that Psalm 68 talks about how all the people, friends and foes alike, brought gifts to God to acknowledge his kingship. And of course we do this every time we worship. We come bearing gifts, not just our tithes and offerings but our talents and our praise and our very selves, offered on the altar to the King who is worthy of far more than we could ever give.

But it’s critical to what Paul is doing here to see why he makes this change. Paul did not make a translation error. His memory is not fading. Paul wants us to see Jesus, the ascended king at the right hand of the Father, not simply as the king who receives our gifts but as the king who graciously gives gifts.

If we are going to get our walking to fit with God’s calling and be built up together as Christ’s body to join God’s mission in the world, then it will only happen if we are fully equipped. And Jesus sees to this. He gives us gifts of grace from his hands.

Every single one of us gets a gift. Some of us get more than one. But we don’t choose the gifts. We don’t apply for them. We don’t somehow merit them. They are given according to Christ’s determination and purpose, and they are never given simply for ourselves! They are given for the purpose of serving others, for building up the body of Christ, for doing the work of ministry together. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“Each gift is an invitation and provides the means to participate in the work of Jesus. These are not gifts to be placed on the mantle like a vase of flowers. They are not gifts to be used for our convenience like, say, a cell phone. These are not gifts to divert or entertain us, like a gift of tickets to the symphony. These are not gifts of appreciation like an anniversary ruby necklace or a retirement Rolex. These are gifts that equip us to work alongside of and in company with Jesus—“the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” We are being invited into a working relationship in the operations of the Trinity.”[1]

These gifts are given so that each of us might get in on the work of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the life of the Christian community and in mission in the world. None of us is insignificant. We all play a part. Every part matters. You’ve been given a gift. And with that gift you have an assignment. Do you know what gift/gifts you’ve been given? How are you using your gifts to build up Christ’s body?

Paul loves to list the various gifts. He lists a few here, and many others in places like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. British theologian John Stott identifies at least twenty-eight distinctive gifts that Paul mentions. But not even that combined list is meant to be exhaustive. Paul’s point is that we all have been given gifts from the king’s hands, and therefore called into the king’s service.

In his great poem on the church, titled “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot captures the essence of Paul’s insight on the nature and place of the gifts of grace that have been given us from the king’s hands:

There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.

One of our primary goals here at Fellowship Church is to be creating a culture where we joyfully celebrate the diversity of our gifts and recognize how much we really do need each other. We have a tradition of designating one Sunday in the month of May to let down our hair, cut loose and celebrate our work together and the God who calls us to this work. We call it “Kudos Day,” taken from the Greek word “kudos” which means “to appreciate” or “to give credit.”

And so in a minute our children and Sunday School teachers will be flooding into the sanctuary to help us celebrate right, Pastor Nate and Betsy Bruins will come forward to lead us in a time of giving thanks! But first, let us pray together, asking Jesus our king to give us his strength and power from on high so that we might continue to grow up in every way into Christ our Head and get our everyday walking in step with God’s glorious calling.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Ibid, p.47

Click HERE for the Spiritual Gifts Assessment.

Renee Krueger