My Final Sunday Sermon: Salvation Born in Humble Simplicity

I thank the Trinity Baptist Church, all of the churches of the Pamunkey Baptist Association, the Baptist General Convention of Virginia for giving me the chance to serve as a pastor for over 16 years and for introducing me to Jesus Christ and nurturing me in the faith for all of my life.  Thanks to all who have taken the time to read my (frequently grammatically incorrect) sermons by following e-mail and Facebook alerts.  Your acts of kindness, thoughts, and prayers have been a blessing to my wife and I.  God has brought me to a new chapter in my life.  But, I must acknowledge and pray that I will not disdain nor forget the friendships that I have forged over the years.  May God bless us all this Christmas, in 2014, and unto the ages of ages.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Salvation Born In Humility Luke 2:4-7
Have you ever wondered what sorts of decorations were used on that first Christmas Day? Chances are that Douglass Fir trees weren’t growing in ancient Judea. So, what did they do for the center of the decorations, the Christmas Tree? More than likely, there was no snow. So, I guess, Frosty the Snowman and Sleigh Ride were not on the Holiday top 10 list. Nicholas of Myra wasn’t born until three centuries later. Santa Claus couldn’t come to town. Since Dominion VA Power and REC weren’t even imagined at that time, nobody had a tacky light display that used more electricity than a third world country. No, the first Christmas Day could not have looked anywhere near our day after Thanksgiving. Chances are, Joseph and Mary weren’t thinking about special sales, baking fruit cake, nor even picking up that last tube of wrapping paper. In fact, the first Christmas day was very humbling. Joseph had to leave the comfort of his home in Nazareth because a Roman emperor wanted a census taken and the Syrian governor thought it best to send everyone back to their ancestral homes to be counted. It was belittling enough that a foreign occupying government made this decree on a Jewish carpenter. But, to make him leave the comfort of his own dwelling was even more of a burden.
To add insult to injury, Joseph had to take his pregnant, betrothed Mary with him. Two things are troubling here. First of all, that she isn’t going to move very quickly. If she rode on the back of a donkey or horse, it would be rather uncomfortable for her. No consideration is given to Mary to allow them, or at least her, to stay home for the sake of her condition. Also, that in this betrothal relationship (or in our modern view engagement) questions would be asked by the census takers and the home folk about her being pregnant in the first place. Was Joseph the baby daddy? Did some Roman soldier get her? How was she supposed to be related to the Priest Zachariah and Elizabeth and here she is pregnant? They are on the road to do business and have to deal with folk all up in their business. But, at least when they get to Bethlehem, Joseph can splurge a little on a very comfortable room for Mary to give birth. Maybe he can get a nice crib for the baby with a soft, little blanket, right? Nope, there was no room in the inn. The baby was born in an animal stable of some sort and placed in a feed trough after being wrapped in the kind of cloth used for burying people. So here it is, their child is born outside of the comfort of home, outside the comfort of a decent room, wrapped up as if He is being prepared for His burial (a foretaste of the future) and lays down where donkeys and oxen eat their meals. Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Rose of Sharon, the Lilly of the Valley, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace had a first birthday that was more fitting for a servant boy than a descendant of King David; much less, the Only Begotten Son of the Heavenly Father.
But, what a powerful testimony that is for us! Salvation is born not in comfort or luxury. Salvation is born in humility and simplicity. This point is often ignored and overlooked in our modern celebrations. How often do we splurge on gifts for the people we love? Our credit card bills know! Look at our town and city parades and light displays? Even summertime amusement parks generate money from displaying “Christmas Town” and “Santa Land.” And let’s not even mention all of the rich and sweet foods we will gorge ourselves on, watch our blood glucose levels, pressures, and body weight shoot up like a rocket and the first Monday in January, we can’t even get in the door at the YMCA as we all make that resolution to be healthy and in shape. We are not thinking about humility and simplicity during Christmas. In fact, even when we donate to something like Angel Tree or the Christmas Mother, it is often done so that we can tell people about how such giving makes us feel good inside (and it is a quick tax write off). A good friend on Facebook, Dr. Chris Wycoff, shared a sermon written almost 2,000 years ago from St. Gregory the Theologian. This priest and bishop made the Grinch seem like Santa Claus as he preached that Christians are not to observe Christmas like pagans. That we are to shun gold and glitter decorations, expensive gift giving, fancy foods, dancing and music. Today, Gregory’s words would not be welcome in many of our homes and churches of any (including Orthodox) denomination. But here is the wisdom of his words: “Revere the enrolment on account of which you were written in heaven, and adore the Birth by which you were loosed from the chains of thy birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which hath led you back to Paradise; and venerate the manger through which you,
being without sense, were fed by the Word. Know as Isaiah bids you, your Owner, like the ox, and like the colt your Master’s crib.” The tacky and tastefully decorated homes, the well appointed trees, hottest gifts, and most delicious table spreads cannot be compared to the humble and simple birth of the source of our salvation. Our calling for Christmas Day and everyday is to follow the example of our Lord and Savior who came to us in humble simplicity. And for those who wish that everyday could be like Christmas, perhaps this is the way to do it. Like Joseph having to go to Bethlehem, difficulties and inconveniences come up in all of our lives. Joseph does not complain nor does he broadcast the pious role he has in being the surrogate father of the Son that existed before he did. Joseph just goes forward. Too often we tend to grumble and complain about the challenges that come up in all of our lives. But, no one gains anything by complaining because everyone is going through something. Clergy and laity alike like to tell people to shout and praise during bad and good times. Although this is good advice when done in sincerity, there are a whole lot of folk who are fronting holiness and living like heathens behind closed doors. Let’s just go through whatever difficulties and inconveniences life throws our way with a sense of purpose and see what the end will be. Like Joseph to Mary, let us show companionship and loyalty to one another even and especially in difficult circumstances. It is very easy and good to donate clothes, food items, and money during the holidays. But, there are addictions, broken relationships, illnesses, job losses, teen pregnancies, and other hardships that people close to us are going through all year
round. No one person can do everything for everybody. But, everybody can be there for somebody. We all will have a Mary or a few Marys in our lives that need more than a quick act of kindness. Our Marys need someone that will be there in times of inconvenience, discomfort, scandal, and rejection. Share the burden with someone who struggles. Who knows what divine gifts our Marys may bear? Like the donkey and ox referred to in Isaiah 1:3, the animals that may have eaten out of that same feed trough that Our Lord was placed in, Let us know our master and his presence. Let us know Jesus and the significance of His presence. He didn’t come into the world with a grand illumination and great fanfare. Salvation came into the world as an infant. He didn’t come into the world among those who enjoyed luxury, prestige, and wealth. Salvation came into the world through a couple in hardship and inconvenience. He wasn’t clothed in the best of garments fit for a festival. Salvation came into the world already being prepared for His death. And by His death, death and the grave were conquered. He didn’t come into this world demanding gifts from anyone. Salvation came into this world and was and is and will always be the greatest gift the world has ever known! Our choirs will sing Christmas carols at the nursing home and for the King William Emergency Ministries. Wednesday morning after church, we will un-wrap our gifts that have been sitting under the tree we put up and decorated, some as early as the day after Thanksgiving. We are going to dine and dine well and take some pleasure in that we gave a little something to someone less fortunate. But, let us always reflect on and revere the salvation of humanity that was born in humble simplicity

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Today’s Sermon: A Just Man

Joseph of Nazareth

A Just Man
Matthew 1:18-25

In our modern times, we think of being just as a legal term. Someone who is just practices justice. That reward is given to those who have earned or done well and punishment to those who have not. We expect judges and juries to operate like this in court cases. Bankers use such standards as they decide who to lend money to. Coaches and managers do this when selecting athletes to compete in games. Even in our Baptist Church Covenant, we pledge ourselves to be just in our dealings.
In this morning’s text, the definition of “just” goes further than our legalistic boundaries. Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth, embodies the point that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. This just man became the human surrogate father of the Son of the Father of everlasting mercy and eternal love. He played a role in God’s plan of salvation, in part, because of his character. If we are to be effective participants in the will and work of the Lord, I believe and our faith teaches, that we must change our definition of what it is to be “just” from our common, modern boundaries to the Biblical and Christian standard.
Joseph was the betrothed husband to a virgin. In ancient Judaism, virgin women served in the temple to assist the priest in their various duties. To maintain their sexual purity, they were given to community elders of good reputation past their sexual prime who were to be guardian/husbands. In early Christian tradition, it is said that Joseph was a widower who had sons birth his late wife. He was highly regarded by the priest in Nazareth for his obedience to the commandments and practice of the faith. So, the Virgin Mary was given to him not to bear children, but so that she would be able to continue to serve in the temple.
For Joseph, this was a bit unfair. Just because he was no longer in his prime did not mean he had no desires. Suppose he wanted another wife to bear him children as Abraham had Keturah after the death of Sarah? Even in our modern interpretation of the scriptures, what man wants to be engaged to marry a pregnant woman that he didn’t have sex with? In our sense of justice, no man, no matter how old he is, should enter such a marriage.
To be just as Joseph means putting aside natural desire for the sake of the greater good. Yes, you may be in love with your boyfriend or girlfriend and our society says that pre-marital sex is acceptable. But, the greater good is to define the relationship as committed for a lifetime in the eyes of the state and, most importantly, before the presence of God. It may be fair to pay an employee the bare minimum. But the greater good is that if you have people who are doing a good work you give them the best wages you can and still maintain a profit. Fairness is governed by popular opinion and legal standard. Later in this Gospel, Jesus would teach that even Gentiles and tax collectors will act according to these things in who they love and greet. The Pharisees and scribes have a standard of righteousness. Our definition of being just must go beyond these standards and expectations. Joseph understood how to be mindful of the greater good. He was a “just man.”
Legally, Mary should have been stoned to death for being found pregnant in her betrothal marriage. Being the husband, Joseph could have waged a complaint to the priest and ordered the stoning. This is a very cruel means of killing someone as the chief men or the whole community can gather around the convicted to throw heavy and large rocks at her. Anyone witnessing such a means of death would be frightened not to commit the same crime. For the sake of legal order in the community as well as fulfilling his desires for a wife that could bear him children, Joseph could have acted in our modern idea of justice and had her so punished.
But, would it have been just to have her punished if he didn’t know her story? For all he knew, some Roman soldier could have violated her. Perhaps she had some sort of debt and saw that prostituting herself would generate the needed money. Perhaps she was drunken or drugged by someone who wanted to seduce her. Does someone under these conditions deserve the maximum penalty? Did God strike down Cain for clearly killing his brother Abel? No, God spared Cain by giving him a seal of protection, yet still punished the murderer by driving him away from his loved ones. Joseph may have seen the mercy of God in the way He dealt with Cain and resolved to show that same mercy to Mary. To be “just” is to be like God; having the ability to punish without completely destroying the guilty. A “just” parent knows how to spank a child without abusing. A “just” parent knows how to firmly punish a teen-ager knowing that the child needs some room to grow into adulthood. The “just” Joseph has this same understanding that having Mary face the maximum penalty meant killing her and her unborn child. No good could come from that.
But, to have Mary put away quietly is very much like what God did with Cain. She would have to suffer being separated from the temple, the fulfillment of her betrothal status, the safety of Joseph’s home. She would have to live vulnerable to every attack of the enemies with no protection of her body and soul. Such a fate was not quite as bad as tortured to death. At least her life would be spared. And isn’t that how humanity was without salvation? Because of our Cain-like sinfulness, we are separate from the presence of God, the fulfillment of our relationship with him, and the safety of his kingdom. We are vulnerable to every attack of the enemy with no protection for our bodies and souls. Such a separation from our creator is bad enough. But it is not the final punishment, the ever burning pit of fire prepared for the devil and his angels. But, this is “just.” Joseph was a “just man.”
This “just” Joseph who put aside his own desires to accept a betrothal marriage and not seek the death of someone who may have been a victim herself was the kind of man who God chose to participate in the salvation of humanity. Joseph’s character mimics this Son that he would help raise and yet came before him. “I desire mercy not sacrifice. Go and sin no more.” Joseph was the surrogate father of a Son who, “being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.” Joseph’s sacrifice was a foreshadowing of the ultimate of sacrifice of the Son who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” By His death, the Son conquered sin and death. As He rose from the grave, the Son gives new life to all who believe and put their trust in Him. The Son denied and gave Himself to us for the greater good. Because of this, the Son “was given a name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of earth and those under the earth, and every tong should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” And while His Real Father dwelled in heaven, the “just man” Joseph proved to be a worthy surrogate.
Let us seek to be worthy surrogates; to be just men and women. Let us set aside our desires, seek to preserve life, and look for the greater good to be done. By this character and lifestyle, Jesus dwells among and inside of us.

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Today’s Sermon: Stepping Out of the Boat

I knew that, sooner or later, I would preach this sermon.

“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Matthew 14:25-33

A headwind appears on the sea of Galilee as the disciples are crossing to the other side. The seas start to get rough around sundown and have continued to toss their boat around until past midnight. These are the conditions no one wants to be in. Facing hard wind and water is bad enough during daylight. But, when it is dark and the other side of the shoreline is not in sight, such conditions are ripe for breeding fear. While it is easy for us to open our Bibles and talk about not being afraid or singing “When I rose this morning, I didn’t have no doubt,” the fact is that night-time comes up in everyone’s life and the wind isn’t always going to blow your way. The atmosphere for fear comes to all of us and more often than we want to admit, we don’t always show our “saved, sanctified, born again, baptized in the Holy Ghost” selves and we find ourselves afraid.
The conditions for fear arise even when it is Jesus who makes us cross the sea. In verse 22, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side. He sent the crowd away. Crowds can’t always cope with darkness and rough water. Crowds tend to want miracles and a something for nothing full bellies. But, the disciples, the ones who have dropped their old lives to go wherever the Lord was going, the ones who denied themselves, took up their crosses and followed him, these ones were ready to face headwinds, hard waves and do so when they couldn’t see the other side. It is no accident that we are taught to count it all joy when we face trials and temptations. After His baptism, Jesus Himself did not go to a fancy resort on His private jet. Our Lord was sent by the Holy Spirit to the desert to fast and be tempted by Satan. Likewise, We who are not just members of the crowd. We who deny ourselves, carry our crosses, and follow Him will be sent by God to times and places where we are going to get scared.
We are going to get scared even of the very thing, the very one we shouldn’t be scared of. At the darkest hour of the night, Jesus walked across the water toward them and they were troubled thinking they were seeing a ghost. Earlier, Jesus calmed the wind and waves in a storm once before. This was not the first time they witnessed His mastery of the winds and waves. Had this storm arisen during the day or there were no storm and He was just walking on the sea at night, maybe the disciples would have recognized Jesus immediately. But, the conditions for fear, darkness and storm, caused them to forget the power that Jesus showed in the past and the lesson of faith they learned the first time.
Truth be told, we will even become fearful even when we are trying to be faithful. At his test and the Lord’s positive response, Peter steps out of the boat and walks to Jesus. At first, Peter does the impossible as he walks on the water to go to Jesus. As long as he kept his attention on the Lord and His calling, Peter’s faith overcame what should have swallowed him up. But, when he saw that the wind was boisterous, able to stir up the sea around him, Peter became afraid and as he began to sink, he cried out saying “Lord, save me!” Failure to keep our eyes on Jesus and to let things distract us from our calling will cause us to be afraid and sink. Inital courage and faith, though a good thing, is not good enough to carry us through. We all can be lose focus in the winds of our finances, relationships, and other winds that may stir up things around us and rise against us.
Peter shows that despite his willingness to step out of the boat, he is no better than the disciples that stayed in the boat. All of them lacked faith. Peter’s case was more dramatic. But they all let the conditions of storm and darkness get the better of themselves. Our lesson for today and everyday is to not let the conditions of storm and darkness get the better of us. Jesus will not only allow, but he will send us out into such conditions. If we are indeed disciples and not just a part of the crowd that wants miracles and blessings, Jesus will send us into places that will challenge our ability to remember how good He is and what He is able to. If we are willing to test our faith further, Jesus may even call us to step out of our boats of familiarity and safety and by faith, we can walk out on the waters with Him. Let us be of good cheer! Let us have faith and not doubt! Because whether we step out on the waters or stay in the boat, Jesus is with us even in storms and darkness.
For the first time in over 16 years, we will enter a time of uncertainty. Today, I give you the words I gave to the deacons last Sunday:

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I have studied Eastern Orthodoxy, the oldest form of Christianity, for over a year and found great value in this ancient faith in its history, spirituality, and daily practice. It would be unfair to you and myself for me to continue as a Baptist on the surface and Orthodox in private practice. After consulting with a few wise colleagues, my wife, and spending time in fasting and prayer; I have come to the conclusion that it is best that I leave.
On Christmas Day, Wednesday December 25th, 2013; I will preach my last sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. I will also resign my Certificate of Ordination in the Baptist Denomination. As of January 1, 2014; I will be a member of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. I will also work with the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black in its efforts to introduce Orthodoxy to African-Americans and all who seek this ancient Christian faith.
I thank you for allowing me to serve you for over 16 years as your pastor. It has been a pleasure to share laughter, tears, and everything in between in this work of the Gospel together. I am glad that there is an energy for growth here at Trinity and belive that you will continue to be a beacon of light in this community.
May the Holy Trinity bless us as we take separate journeys with the same purpose of spreading the Gospel to all nations.

Yours in Christ,

John R. Gresham, Jr.
Yes, I have decided to step out of the boat of the denomination that has given me the safety and security of the Gospel for over 40 years. This boat has been very good to me. And in particular, this boat called Trinity Baptist, has allowed me to serve in the pastoral ministry for over 16 years at a time when the average minister rarely last 5 in his or her first pulpit. I have been blessed to be in this boat with you.
Yet, I cannot ignore what I have studied and practiced for more than a year. I see Jesus in the 2,000 year old Orthodox Church and hear Him saying, “Come.” I will have to walk on waters of uncertainty and through winds of opposition. Walking by sight tells me to stay here in the boat. Jesus is coming to us anyway and He will calm the winds down and we will all make it safely to the shore anyway. None of the other disciples walked out with Peter and didn’t face any rebuke from the Lord. In fact, Peter is the only one in the story who was rebuked for his doubting and lack of faith.
But, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. This may not be your storm to walk out on. Maybe you have walked out on the waters before. And if you haven’t yet, keep living. Because in all of our lives, there will be a storm that will arise as we do the will of Christ. In the midst of the storm, He will come to us, calm the winds, and lead us safely through. But, there will be something inside of you that will cause you to see Jesus out on the sea. Your desire to be with the Lord will stir up inside of you to a point where you won’t be satisfied with the safety and security of the boat. You will step out on faith and as long as you don’t let the wind nor waves nor anything else distract you, you will walk on the water and reach the Savior. And should you falter and sink due to doubts and lack of faith, call on the name of Jesus and He will rebuke but, save you.
This church will be without a pastor and this pastor is going to put his faith to the test as he is called. We are going into a time of darkness and storm. But, Jesus says to us today as He said to the disciples of old, “Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid.” The same God who lovingly provided someone to serve this church before is able to provide another man or even woman to stand at this sacred desk and deliver the Gospel. “Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid.” A little darkness is arising now as I am leaving. But, we serve a greater light that was here long before I came here and will be here long after we are all gone. “Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid.” There is a head wind blowing against us as for a while, this pastoral office will be vacant. But, with the faith and willingness to work as seen in the ushers, Voices of Praise, children’s church, progressively minded members, and a church family that works together to do God’s will; this branch of Zion has what it takes to keep moving forward. “Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid.” If we follow the word of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and I keep the faith and do not doubt, we will be in the same boat in the perfect peace that only He can provide and He will lead us safely to the other shore.

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Today’s Sermon: Wear The Right Garment

Jesus Teaching in the Temple

Matthew 22:11-14

In the last of 3 parables where Jesus rebukes the challenge of the Pharisees and scribes as to the source of His authority, there is the story of a king who has invited people to a great wedding feast for his son. When he sent the messengers out to the invited guest to let them know that everything was ready and that they should come, the invitees either ignored them, or spitefully mistreated and even killed them. The king sent his armies to destroy those whom he invited and burn their city as well. Seeing there was a great feast, he sent out other servants to go to the highways and find as many people as they could to come to the wedding feast. They did and filled the banquet hall with both good and bad people. All who wanted to come to this great feast were allowed to do so.
This is a prophetic word from Jesus Christ. For as the Jews rejected the Gospel, God the Father did inflict wrath upon them. Some 40 years after these words were spoken, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and killed the majority of the priest and scribes. In the mean time, the Apostles spread the Gospel to Gentiles throughout the world. And until this day, many people have accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior and Son of God. Some believers have always been good-natured and kind-hearted people. Others have been the most vile of sinners that have done things we wouldn’t dream of. Most, like us, fall somewhere in between the two extremes. But, no matter who we are, or what we have done, we serve a God who reaches out to all mankind and gives us an invitation to His kingdom where there is no more crying, dying, sickness nor sorrow. His kingdom is a place of everlasting peace and eternal joy. His kingdom is not of one year nor a thousand years. It is the kingdom that has always been and will always be. Being in a nation that was founded on the contradiction of freedom and slavery. Being in a nation is under God with laws such as abortion and gay marriage that are against His will. Being in a nation where it seems the only time we set aside our social, economic, political, and racial differences is when a disaster happens in a community; I think it is safe to assume that we all want to go to God’s Kingdom. A kingdom that is not made by man’s fickle will. But, built on His eternal and everlasting word of truth and love. Yes, we all want to go to that kingdom.
But, to enter into that kingdom and partake of the great feast of the Bridegroom, we have to wear the right garment. In ancient cultures, a king gave the order that certain clothes had to be worn to show that one is among the approved guest. If a guest could not afford the proper attire, the king would provide a cloth to be worn on the head and shoulders so the invited guest could be counted among the approved. I was watching a documentary about Ethiopia and a reporter and his crew were given long white cloths to wear to a wedding because without it, they wouldn’t be able to attend the feast and make the film. There was a time in our churches that people had to wear their Sunday Best every Sunday and that if someone couldn’t afford a suit or dress, the deacons, deaconesses, and missionaries would buy skirts for the ladies and dress shirts and ties for the men. For it was important to come to God in His house with the right garments.
But, more importantly if one expects to come to God and partake of the heavenly feast, one must wear the right garment of the heart. This is not something that can be found at Macy’s or Men’s Wearhouse. This is a unisex piece of clothing that fits all of us and is woven in the scriptures. The stitching is repentance, the fabric is righteous living, and the seams are held tight by belief in the Gospel.
In the first of these parables, Matthew 21:28-32, a father tells his first son to go out into the vineyard and work. The son replied he will not do it. But afterward, he repented and did his father’s will. The second son said he would do his father’s will, yet he didn’t. The point of repentance is not so much the wrong that we said or did at first. Repentance is about realizing what we did wrong and changing our ways so that we can do right. One of the ancient fathers taught that on the day of judgement, God will not ask us why we sinned. He will ask us why we didn’t repent.

The second son may have said the right thing, giving the father the answer he wanted to hear. And that is a problem we have in the church today. We all want to tell God everything he wants to hear. We want to clap and wave our hands in praise and shout about our thanksgivings and testimonies in church and around people so that they can think that we are living right. But, too many of us have not gone into the vineyard of our hearts and done the work in our souls to get rid of our sinful habits and change from that wickedness we think no one knows about, yet God knows. Too often, we are like the Pharisees and scribes who know how to say the right things. But, our words are not backed up by our lifestyles. The first son, the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, heard the teachings of John the Baptist, decided to change from their wicked ways, were cleansed in the Jordan River, and lived as holy and righteous men and women. They wore the right garment.
The Pharisees and scribes saw John the Baptist living and teaching in the way of righteousness and did not believe him. These were men of religious and some political power. They had influence over the Jewish society and could pull some legal levers as well, as would be proven by their taking Jesus to Pontus Pilate to be crucified. John did not live for the sake of honor and prestige. His concern was to live to his calling from God and to reach the souls of sin sick people. While the Jewish leaders must have seen that this prophet John was right, they held their positions of earthly honor more important than being a part of eternal salvation. They were very comfortable with their broad prayer cloths and long tassels of their offices. But they were wearing the garments that were unfit for the great wedding feast.
We must be aware not to wear the robes of power and popular opinion at the expense of the camel’s-hair suits of obedience to God. When we care more about looking righteous on the outside than we do being righteous on the inside, we make ourselves no better than the Pharisees and Scribes. Too often, some Christians know they have issues with sexual immorality, substance abuse, and other sins. Too often, some Christians know they are called to step out of their safety zones and take a risk of financial hardship or losing circles of friend and influence. They need help and to go out and do as God called them. But, they are too worried about what people will say about them if they admit to the problem and seek help. They would rather keep the little bit of something they have rather than step out on faith for God’s greater glory. That is not righteous living. That is not genuine leather or silk. That is plether and polyester; false garments. But, the tax collectors and prostitutes who weren’t trained religious leaders had sense enough to see their clothing or their lives were stained by their sinfulness. They may not have learned all of the law and the prophets. But, they believed the prophet John the Baptist and dipped by him in the Jordan Stream and changed into garments fit for the wedding feast.
To belive in Jesus without repentance and righteous living is to be like the man who came to the wedding feast wearing whatever he wanted to wear. And maybe he had on a Steve Harvey suit with a pair of Gators. Maybe he got the special at GQ Men’s Wear complete with the shirt, socks, tie, and a hat for half off. But, heaven is not about our exterior clothing. It is about how we are dressed in our souls. There is nothing wrong with looking good. But, our goal is to be like God; to be Holy. Christianity today has a lot of fancy clothing. We have fantastic singers whose voices match anything in the secular world. We have preachers with a speaking ability to motivate people as well if not better than the highly paid motivational speakers in the corporate world. When Christian TV broadcasting started back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s it was only on Sundays and on one of those old UHF channels where you had that loop antenna to get the station. Now we have Daystar, The Gospel Network, and TBN 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and several broadcast on local TV on Sundays and some week days. Our Christian world has every stitch of clothes that everyone else has. And compared to the wickedly hedonistic world we live in, sometimes the false prophets among us are better for us than the foolishness on secular media.
But, belief in the Gospel does not rely on what Gospel artist we listen to, who’s ministry we follow, or what station we keep our TV sets on. True belief in the Gospel is founded on repentance and living in righteousness. This is the garment that John the Baptist wore, the tax collectors and prostitutes put on through baptism and that Jesus, though the Son of God without sin, accepted. As we prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas, let us take the time and effort to dress appropriately. Who knows when the Bridegroom will come.

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Today’s Sermon: Thank God, Not Sales

Thanksgiving Day, not “Black Thursday.”

Matthew 6:19-24

The Thanksgiving Holiday has at least 3 possible origins. We are all familiar with the story of the pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a feast during the harvest before winter in the Massachusetts Colony. Some die-hard Virginia historians believe the first such celebration had to have taken place in or near Jamestown. During the Civil War, it was said that Abraham Lincoln instituted the day of giving thanks to God. The Union forces called a cease-fire and the Confederates followed suit. One thing is for certain. That the final Thursday in November was to be set aside to show gratitude for the things we have and the people in our lives. The holiday was designed to go beyond denominational borders as anyone could accept a day to giving thanks to God. I dare venture to say that even the Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, or anyone else of any other faith can accept such a national holiday. By tradition, Thanksgiving was a day off for everyone. Except for those who provide needed health and safety services, we would all have that day off, or at least, half the day off.
The concept of being grateful to God for what we have and the people in our lives has been deteriorating for quite some time. Now, it has reached a new low. Major retailers and other shopping outlets will be open for Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day. Many of us disdain the midnight and early bird sales on “Black Friday” and consumerism gone haywire (people who can barely make it to work on time or make it to church at all staying up all hours of the night to buy stuff). This is a slap in the face of our history as the retailers are showing impatience to earn money. It is a calloused view of humanity as shoppers demand that retail employees separate themselves from their families and friends to serve them on a day designed for rest. Even though it is shopping for the day we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, none of the advertisements and marketing strategies used for these Thanksgiving Day sales have anything to do with the Christian faith. What we have isn’t good enough. So let’s go and buy stuff on a day that we know many people aren’t working. Hmmmm … So, corporate America says that our days that aren’t spent earning money should be spent spending money. Who cares about rest and worship? There are more cars in shopping center parking lots than at churches on the Sabbath Day. I suppose I should have known Thanksgiving Day would suffer a similar fate. “God Bless America,” indeed.
For years, I have said that we should avoid the madness of “Black Friday” shopping sprees. I now declare that we should reject shopping on the day that is rapidly becoming “Black Thursday” formerly known as Thanksgiving Day. (Thursday … Thor’s Day … Isn’t Thor a pagan god? Why do we have days named for pagan gods?). I believe the scriptures give us perspective on how we should approach this day of gratitude for our blessings.
First, let us consider where we are putting our treasures of attention, love, and time. Jesus taught that we should put our treasures where they won’t become moth-eaten, rusty, or stolen. He warns that where our treasures are, our hearts will be also. I remember when, back in the mid to late 1980’s, one of the best gifts one could give a teen-ager was a Sony Walkman Cassette Player. I had a couple of knock-off portable cassette players. Today, the cassette industry is obsolete as young people can choose from a whole library of music from their smart phones. And this is the fate of those who put their attention, love, and time (their treasures) into the things of this world. They become obsolete in the heart. Things that are obsolete are sold cheaply in yard sales and eventually thrown away.
Jesus did not come down from 40 and two generations, die on a cross, and rise again for us to be obsolete. He came so that we may be complete and like Him. In order to be like our Savior, we must do as He commanded, “He who wants to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” Rather than making a mad dash to these “One Day Only So We Can Trample Some Under Paid Retail Worker To Death Sales,” spend some of that Thanksgiving Day down time in prayer and reading scripture. Make a donation to a food bank or soup kitchen. Do something out of love for God and humanity to keep your walk with Jesus current and up to date. Lay up your attention, love, and time (your treasure) in heaven and your heart will always be refreshed in the Holy Spirit.
Let us keep our eye on the good things in life and that are in our lives. One thing about shopping is that we are always looking at stuff. Preferably the best quality, the best price, or both as much as possible. But, we are always looking at clothing, entertainment, furniture, toys, … . As if some how this stuff will add value to our lives. Saving 70% off a fleece lined leather jacket (that was probably marked up by twice that) will keep you warm and it is good to be warm. But a coat does not have a healing character that strengthens you in times of trouble and gives other a better perspective of life. Such a coat may be top quality. It may be sold at a lower than retail price. But to find what is truly good in life, we must look to another source than the Black Thursday and Friday sales events. (Friday … Frey’s Day … yet another pagan god).
In His first response to the rich young ruler who sought to follow Him, Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good except God.” Jesus met the man’s flattery with a message of humility. Always aim for what is more holy, loving, and righteous than yourself. Always seek a greater good than even the good seen in this world. I have a friend that runs a weekend-back pack food program that is one of the most effective in Pittsburgh. He and the volunteers at his program don’t just give them a bag of food to put in their back packs and say, “see you next week.” They ask about how they are doing in school, encourage and help them do better, give “high fives;” they love the children they serve and the kids feel that love and share it in return. “Well, I gotta buy my child a coat.” That is a good thing. There are over 300 days out of the year to buy a coat. Use this one day to show your child how to be thankful for what you all have already been blessed with. That is the greater good that will warm up your character and build a deeper bond of love.
Ultimately, we will have to choose between Thanksgiving or Black Thursday (Thor’s Day). We will have to choose between jealously dedicating the last Thursday of November a time of being grateful for family, friends, and the things we already have. Or, shopping will become our main objective. There is no middle road. The thing that we put our treasures into and set our eyes on will dominate and overtake other concerns. If we choose Black Thursday, the spirit of a pagan hammer will knock out our human senses and turn us into mice going through mazes of big box stores and malls. We will replace meaningful contact with family to text and tweets about what is on sale and where. Our meals will be whatever in the food court rapidly swallowing rather than sitting down to digest and savor. As we grab, push, and snatch at every discount, the cash registers will ring for the corporate merchants at the expense of their employees who earn paychecks at the cost of their family lives and ( in some cases ) very lives in the crush of consumerism.
But when we truly give thanks to God for our families and friends, we are enabled to share joy with one another and deepen our love and commitment. When we are truly thankful for what God has already done for us, we won’t worry so much about all the other things Jones down the road has. In fact, we may even see that we have more than enough and be moved to share with Jones up the road who doesn’t have. Thanksgiving knows no Baptist nor Wesleyan, no Christian nor Muslim nor even Atheist. We can all be grateful and celebrate the day of gratefulness. In particular for those of us who were picked up, turned around and had our feet placed on higher ground. In particular for those of us who stepped in the water and the water was cold with chilled bodies but warmed souls. We can be thankful that Jesus Christ was crucified, trampled down death by his death, rescued us from our sins, and has given us a joy, peace, and love that the world cannot give nor take away!

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Today’s Sermon: From Snakes to Humans

The Forerunner and the God-Man

From Snakes To Humans
Luke 3:7

Along the Jordan River, John was baptizing a multitude of people who came to him for repentance and the remission of their sins. We would think that any minister with a multitude of people would be more than happy. “Look at all the souls being saved!” And with such crowds coming to him, that he would tailor his message to keep them coming. Perhaps give them comfort, encouragement, or even stroke some egos so that he could afford something more than camel skin clothes and a locust and wild honey diet.
Yet, John doesn’t give words of consolation, happiness, nor flattery. In fact, he immediately insults everyone; not just the Gentiles, Samaritans, or unclean sinners who may be in the crowd. The Baptizer insults everyone, even the most honestly kind-hearted seeker of truth and righteousness among them. And his words are quite harsh. “Brood of vipers.” John is calling the entire multitude who is coming for the baptism or repentance for the remission of sins the children of snakes. He is saying that their parents are snakes as they are their children. To the Jews, snakes are the lowest of creatures as it was the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. To be called a pig is bad enough as it is an unclean animal. But, a viper, a snake was the very emblem of evil its self. And here it is, this cheap clothes wearing, bug eating country preacher with all of these folk coming to him and could make him rich in tithes and offerings and he has the very nerve to call all of them the worst name you can call anyone in society?
As harsh as it may seem, John’s words applied to them all. Obviously we can see this applying to prostitutes, pimps, and tax collectors for their wickedness. Certainly Gentiles and Samaritans as they were not a part of the seed of Abraham. But, the ordinary Jews among them, even the ones who try to do right, are counted no worse nor better than either group. The best among them still harbor sensuality and greed in their hearts and minds and speak them even if they do not act upon them. The best among them is still irreverent to God as if he doesn’t exist and uses His name only for personal gain. John the Baptist understands how corrupt the human condition is to the point where even the best of the multitudes fail to be human. Indeed their parents and those before them have set the pattern of their lives. All of them, no matter who they are or think they are, are snakes.
Of course, that does not apply to us today, does it? I mean, we are not like the Miley Cyrus’s, Lil’ Waynes, and other celebrities that flaunt wicked lifestyles. We are not running the streets, committing crimes, or laying up with whomever and whenever. Okay, we might think of doing something we shouldn’t. But, at least we don’t do those things. Even if we did, we’ll just say, “My bad God. I won’t do it again.” (at least until next weekend). And even if we did that back in the day, that was back in the day. We are all good now that we go to church. At least we aren’t Jews who still don’t believe in Jesus, or Muslims terrorist woman beaters, or these New Age people practicing witchcraft. We are saved, sanctified, born again, baptized believers in Jesus Christ and are filled with the Holy Ghost. We are not snakes, are we?
This word from John the Baptist applies to us all as a reminder for us not to think too highly of ourselves. That we should be well aware of our capacity to live as evil snakes rather than men and women created in the image of God to live in communion with Him.
It is easy for us to condemn the foul behavior of others. But, what if we were in the same boat they were in? Suppose you couldn’t find work with bills to pay and babies to feed. Under the right conditions, you just might think that selling a little something on the side to get caught up won’t hurt nothing. Suppose there was a problem in your marriage and then that other man or woman offered his or her self to you? Maybe you could see that other person somewhere away from prying eyes. Just because a seed of sin has not been planted doesn’t mean it can’t grow. It just hasn’t been put in the right dirt yet. It is only because of God’s grace, we have not fallen in the right dirt. Because like everyone else, we carry the same seed of sin that can and will grow into the toxic weed of death. So, just because we are here on a Sunday morning does not mean we are completely unable to be where we don’t belong Monday thru Saturday. In fact, we could go to the wrong place right after we leave this place today.

Somewhere along the line, we have lowered the expectation of our humanity. We don’t always act on our sinful thoughts nor do we frequently speak about them. But, we hold on to them as daydreams and fantasies. And we sin in our minds using the same excuse as those who sin in word and deed. “I’m only human.” With that statement, we are saying that human beings are helpless to temptation and can’t help but to do wrong. But 2,000 years ago, this excuse became invalid. Jesus came to the earth fully God and also fully human. He overcame the same temptations that confront us. He overcame death by His death because the Godly Light of His life conquers all darkness and evil that results in death. Because of the life-giving power of the Gospel, the expectation of our humanity is to live free from sin. To make excuses for our sins is to deny our ability to be fully human and reduce ourselves to being snakes. We can dress up, clap our hands, and give our best praises all day long. But, as long as we deny the expectation to live as sinless as the God-Man Jesus, we can not be God’s image human. We can only be belly crawling, dust eating snakes.

No, even the best of us sin and fall short of God’s glory. Even the best of us are snakes. But, the good news is that being a human or a snake is a choice. Hear these words of the Savior in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Make the constant commitment every day and every hour not to eat the dust of wickedness and crawl on our bellies with low expectations of our humanity. But let us strive for the higher calling of following the Good Shepherd who leads us to green pastures, lets us drink from still waters, and restores our souls. We must be humble enough to see that we are fully capable of every sin imaginable. But, we are called to live in the holy example of the God who became man so that we could be one with Him. Therefore, let us move from snakes to humans.

Posted in Christian Living, Gospel of Luke, Jesus, John the Baptist, Repentance, self examination, sermons, Sin, Theophany | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Today’s Sermon: Commitment for a Full Blessing

Thanking God for my first sermon since my hospitalization.  Memory Eternal to Freddie Fowlkes whom I eulogized yesterday.  Praying for a wonderful service this afternoon in honor of our Deacons, Deaconesses, and Trustees.

John the Baptist


Commitment for a Full Blessing

Luke 3:1-6

It is easy for us to shortchange the blessings and miracles of where the Lord has brought us from. As you know, I drove myself to the hospital last weekend not knowing that my blood sugar was 720. I should have gone into a diabetic coma, had a stroke, got dizzy, had an accident and died. But, by the mercy of God, none of those things happened. As you can see, I am alive and well. And I praise God for being better to me than I have been to myself. It is very easy for me to shortchange my testimony right now because my story is encouraging enough as it is. But, the fact that God has preserved my life, and all of ours, one more day has a deeper meaning and purpose. The ancient father, St. Isaac the Syrian, makes it plain in his highly regarded teaching, “This life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
John the Baptist was also a man who should have been dead. When Herod was killing the baby boys, John should have been one of those children that didn’t make it to the age of 2. In fact, John should not have even been on the earth because his father, Zachariah the priest and mother Elizabeth were elderly and beyond their child-bearing years. But, his testimony did not stop there as we now find him a grown man who is dedicated to and preaching baptism and repentance. This lifestyle of the holy prophet and forerunner is the deeper meaning to his miraculous birth and blessed protection. Had he not been devoted to a changed life and changing lives, John’s testimony would have been shortchanged. But, because of his commitment to the washing away of sins and living holy, John the Baptist fulfilled his purpose in life.
I offer to you this morning, brothers and sisters, that we strive to have the same commitment as John the Baptist. We can all praise God for bringing us out of accidents, illnesses, and other life threatening situations. But these praises aren’t enough. We must not short change our testimonies. Our calling is to live cleansed from our sins and in the path of holiness. To fulfill our purpose in life, we must be committed to baptism and repentance.
Only baptism and repentance prepares the way for the Lord to enter our hearts. It is popular (and correct) to say, “we need more love in this world.” Non-believers and nominal Christians will easily agree with this. But, as it is written in John’s Gospel, “Greater love have no man than this, that He laid down His life for His friends.” The greatest love there is the love of Jesus Christ. And what did he do three years prior to his crucifixion and resurrection? He heard the holy instruction of and was baptized by John. There can be no great love in us, much less the world, unless we are committed to the washing away of and living opposite of our sins. How do we know this? Jesus did this and He didn’t sin. We who have been baptized must keep in mind the cleansing power of what was done, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins. When sinners plunge beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” Baptism is not just an empty ritualistic symbol where we go in as dry sinners and come out as wet ones. Baptism is a cleansing and we are called to live clean lives. We keep the cleansing by living opposite the things that tempt us into evil. This is what makes the love of Jesus real in our lives and allows us to grow in his grace and mercy. When we don’t take baptism and repentance seriously, the presence of Jesus in our praise is reduced to a punchline of a joke. When we commit ourselves to baptism and repentance, we have the fullness of Christ and can walk in His way.
Only in baptism and repentance can we find the cure for what is wrong with us. “Every valley will be exalted. Every mountain made low. The crooked places straight and the rough places smooth.” All of us have some places in our lives, where if the devil had his way, he would sink us into a pit of wickedness., make us arrogant beyond correction. We all have a weakness to go any way the world says is right and will act as if things are supposed to go our way all the time. Baptism is done with water. Elementary school science teaches us that water erodes mountains and fills valleys during floods. Over time, water wears out rough edges and seeks to flow in a straight line. This is what the spiritual waters of baptism does in our souls as we nourish this life-giving flood in our prayers and walk of repentance. Some immediately, others over time; all of our bad habits and worst traits are corrected by our commitment to holy living. Praise and thanksgiving (good things that they are) cannot correct our souls. They may stir up and excite. But, a faith based on being stirred up and excited only hides our flaws like a dust storm. Sooner or later; the wind dies down, the dust settles, and the flaws are still there. Let us keep the cleansing and correcting waters of baptism flowing in our souls by living in repentance.
Only in baptism and repentance can we see the salvation of God with other believers. John is not alone in this faith. Multitudes came to hear him. Many came to be baptized by him and Jesus was among them. The Holy Trinity was revealed to all who were committed to cleansing and living as new men and women. We modern Protestants believe firmly that each individual must make a decision to follow Jesus and have a personal relationship with Him. But, we must avoid the mistake of thinking that “I” am the only one that matters. No one person is better or worse than the other, all must be washed in the blood of Christ. No one person is more righteous or wicked, all must repent and live in repentance. Sitting in your living room with your Bible, your TV set, watching your favorite preacher, listening to your favorite Gospel music, and praying your prayers is a selfish faith. Over 40,000 denominations and non-denominations each claiming to teach the right doctrine is selfishness. And selfishness is a separation and an offence to a Savior who selflessly took on our corruptible flesh, laid down his life, and overcame death for us all. If Jesus so freely gave to all, who are we to think of ourselves separate from all? Cleansing and holiness are for every man, woman, boy, and girl. All be invited to and share in God’s mercy and love. Thus, as often as possible, we should and must come together to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in spirit and truth.

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