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11:32:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1901 words  
Categories: Epiphany 2013

Broken Silence

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
January 27, 2013

Scripture Readings
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27-31a
Luke 4:14-21

Lord Jesus, we keep having the same problem as always. We want to fellowship with you, but we don’t know how. We want to recognize your presence, but we don’t see you. We want to follow where you’re leading us, but we don’t hear your voice. We know we’re stubborn. We know we like voices that tell us what we want to hear. We know how hard it is for us to let go of the things that weigh us down and hold us back. We know we’re pretty hopeless and helpless when it comes to being your disciples. So we beg you, again, to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. Send your Holy Spirit to us to open up our hearts, to unstop our ears, to renew our vision, to transform our minds. All until we cling to you for dear life. All until we cling to you for sheer joy. Amen.

Silence is golden. Sometimes. But sometimes silence is unbearable. Take last Sunday night’s episode of Downton Abbey. Mr Bates and Anna. The two of them are newly married. Mr. Bates is also newly imprisoned. For months they have been living on letters. But Anna’s letters have stopped coming to Mr. Bates. And he wonders if she has forgotten him. Mr. Bates’s letters have stopped coming to Anna. And she wonders if he intends to give her a new life without him. They’re in agony, the two of them. The silence is killing them.

Then circumstances change. All of a sudden, Mr. Bates receives a packet of letters from Anna. And Anna receives a packet of letters from Mr. Bates. They each open their letters. They read. They savor every word. They smile. They laugh. They cry. The silence had been unbearable. But this . . . this is beyond wonderful!

Pity the returned exiles, living in Jerusalem! Once they had been loved. Once they had been a bride. Once the Lord had been their husband. He settled them in a beautiful land. He provided for them and protected them. He always spoke to them in love. But they stopped listening. They slept around with other gods. And the Lord turned away. The land spat them out.

Now they were back, some of them anyway. But Jerusalem was a ruin. The Temple was a pile of rubble. And it was a long, hard road trying to put the pieces back together. And the worst of it was that they weren’t sure how it would all play out. How would they end up? They had come back to Jerusalem. Had the Lord come back? The land was still desolate. They still felt nothing at all like a bride. They were unsure of God’s love. And who wouldn’t be? Why would they ever hope that the Lord would have them back? Why would they ever hope that the Lord would even speak to them?

Silence. That’s what they knew. A long time ago they had quit listening. So a long time ago the Lord had quit speaking. The silence was unbearable. But could they ever hope that the silence would end?

On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor gathered the people of Jerusalem together in an open square across from the replacement Temple. And Ezra unrolled the Torah scroll and began to read. He read in Hebrew, beginning with the book of Genesis. He read in Hebrew, which most of the people didn’t understand. But that was okay. Because Levites were there too. And they translated the Hebrew into Aramaic, the language they all knew.

As Ezra read, the people listened. And they began to cry. They cried from sorrow. Because for too long, they hadn’t heard these words. For too long, they had shut their ears. And they cried for joy, with Nehemiah’s encouragement, because finally, again, at last, the Lord was speaking to them. And they were able to hear his voice.

They heard the old promises. They heard stories of the Lord’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love. And they knew he had never forgotten them. They knew they were loved. And they began to feel beautiful, like a bride. And at Nehemiah’s urging, they had a feast.

The silence had been unbearable. But this . . . this was beyond wonderful!

How wonderful it would be to hear from God! Especially after a long silence. It would be like a deep, soaking rain after years of drought. But how can we, at this late date—how can we ever hear from God?

The psalmist says, The heavens declare the glory of God. He means the wonders of the night sky. And he means the blazing heat of the sun. The night sky is lit up at a thousand points with God’s glory. And the sun, it burns with the fire of God.

But, of course, the psalmist didn’t even know a fractional part of what there is to know and to see in the heavens. The Hubble Telescope and deep space probes and Mars rovers have revealed so much more about the sky above us! More than the psalmist could have dreamed. Quasars, pulsars, black holes. Galaxies, binary star systems, distant planets. Dark matter and curved space. Vast and wondrous beyond imagining! With more being discovered every year.

Now some people think all these discoveries rule out God, instead of declaring the glory of God. They work their equations backwards and forwards to explain everything. They have no need of God as an explanatory hypothesis.

Maybe. But it’s not about equations and explanations. It’s about vision. It’s about the ability to see. Those who are blind to God read the heavens as prose, as a textbook even. But to those with eyes to see, the heavens are poetry, poetry whose every image is alive with the glory of God. That’s what the psalmist sees. He sees the poetry in the heavens. And he is stunned, awestruck, by the glory of God.

Then, in what seems a sudden, jarring shift, the psalmist moves from God’s heavens to God’s Word, to the perfect Law of the Lord. He considers, not just the heavens, but the Word that forms the people of God. The Word that sustains and governs them. The Word that gives shape to their life. The Word that declares the glory of God’s covenant faithfulness.

The heavens are silent. They have no words or language, and their voices are not heard. But God speaks his glory to his people, speaks to them by his Word. And it is beyond wonderful!

Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth one Sabbath. That was his habit. This time, the Isaiah scroll was handed to him. And he read the words he found there. The Lord has anointed me. Which is to say, The Lord has appointed me Messiah. The Lord has made me his Christ. From there Jesus continued the reading. Words about good news and restored vision and freedom. It was Jubilee language, biblical language about all the accumulated injustice of forty-nine years being put right in the fiftieth year.

Only it had been so much more than forty-nine years. And there was so much more that needed to be put right. There were the Romans, of course, with their own brand of justice. There was the problem of confiscated land and crippling debt. And, more than anything, there was the long silence. Not a word from God for ages.

But here was Jesus, reading the Jubilee words. And when he sat down to teach, he did what the usual teachers could never do. They could point to the good old days, when the glory of God filled the Temple and all was right in the world. And they could talk about the day, some day, when God would come back and raise his people to the top of the heap. But when Jesus taught them, it wasn’t about yesterday. And when Jesus taught them, it wasn’t about some day. No, when Jesus taught them, it was about today. The first thing he said was this, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Today the Jubilee is here. Today God has come back. Today the silence is broken. The silence had been unbearable. But this . . . this was beyond wonderful. Now, at last, God was speaking. And the news was good, very good!

But that was a long time ago. Things have been pretty quiet since then. Pretty quiet around here anyway. Maybe even silent. And silence can be unbearable. Especially when we want to, especially when we need to, hear from God.

Suppose you’re a young person. You’re confused. Your body is changing. Your desires are changing. You’re becoming more aware of the world. And you wonder how you’ll find your way. Wouldn’t it be great to hear from God?

Suppose you’re twenty-something or thirty-something. You’re putting a life together. Trying to be responsible. Wondering about relationships. Juggling priorities. Trying to figure out what your life could be about. Wouldn’t it be great to hear from God?

Suppose you’re fifty-something or seventy-something. You’re looking back, wondering where the years have gone. Wondering how you got here. You’re trying to figure out what to do with what’s left of your life. You want your life to have meaning. To have a purpose. Finally. Wouldn’t it be great to hear from God?

But it’s quiet. So quiet. Isn’t it? It seems like there hasn’t been a word from God for a long time. And silence can be unbearable.

But wait a minute. Jesus is the Word. He doesn’t just speak the Word or teach the Word. He is the Word. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the Word in the world. Jesus is the Word with us, the Word still with us. He may be seated at the right hand of God, but he comes to us every day.

Jesus comes to us by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who gathers the church. The Spirit who creates faith in our hearts. The Spirit who makes us the people of God and pours out gifts.

Jesus comes to us when we gather to worship. He’s here before we are! He meets us in the upper room, through his body and blood on the Table. And he meets us on the hill called Golgotha.

Jesus also meets us in quiet moments. In silence that we don’t need to fear. In silence that is bearable, more than bearable, because of his presence. (I am with you always, he said.)

At every stage of our lives, we need to hear from God. And at every stage of our lives, the Word of God to us is Jesus. We hear him best when we make sure to stay close to the church, close to the gathered, gifted people of God. We hear him best when we quiet ourselves to read the Scriptures and to pray. And we hear him best when our hearts and our voices swell with thanks and praise to the God whose glory is in the heavens, the God whose glory is on the cross, the God whose glory is among us for ever.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


05:18:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 2125 words  
Categories: Epiphany 2013

Water into Wine

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
January 20, 2013

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Lord Jesus, once again we have a hundred things on our minds, too many things on our minds. That makes it hard for us to listen, hard for us to hear you. But we need to hear you. We need to see your glory. Your glory fills the earth. Give us eyes to see it. Your glory is above the heavens. Lift up our eyes. And when we see, fill us with hope. Fill us with joy. Because whatever else is true, your Spirit is moving in this world. And your Spirit is among us, making us exactly what you, in your love, want us to be. Amen.

It was a happy day. A young man and a young woman were being joined together in marriage. The whole village was there. And all the relatives from other villages nearby. There were so many of them! And the party was going on and on! All the food! All the music! All the dancing! All the wine!

The wine. So many people and such a celebration. And it was about to screech to a halt. Because the wine had run out. No more good stuff. No more cheap stuff. No more anything. That’s the last thing you need at a party. To run out of wine. That’s the last thing you need at a wedding. What kind of celebration can you have without wine?! It was a disaster.

And they all knew about disasters. They were Jews. Their history was one disaster after another. And every wedding reminded them. Reminded them of how they had been unfaithful to the Lord. Reminded them of how the Lord had divorced them. Reminded them of the unfulfilled promise that one day the Lord would take them back. That the Lord would take delight in them. That once again they would be the bride and the Lord would be the bridegroom.

And while they waited for that promise, the world was changing under their feet. The economy was being transformed. Too many of them were losing their land and their boats. Too many of them were having to hire themselves out as laborers. Too many of them had barely enough to eat and drink. Too many of them were down to their last frayed pieces of clothing.

But today . . . today is a special day. Today is a wedding day. Today is a day to eat and drink and be merry. Because tomorrow, with all its troubles—tomorrow will be here soon enough. So they came and they ate and they drank. And for a little while at least, they forgot. For a little while at least, they dreamed.

They were young again. Young and in love. In love with the God who had wooed them and won them. In love with the God who had rescued them from their enemies. And the best part? He was in love with them. And the celebration would never end.

But the wine is all gone. And the hard truth is about to rush back upon them. The hard truth is about to swallow up their little island of joy.

But Mary—somehow Mary discovers what’s going on. Maybe she sees the panicked look on the servants’ faces. Maybe she sees the master of ceremonies starting to fidget, wondering how he’s going to handle this latest disaster. However she figures it out, Mary decides to do something about it.

She knows something about her own son. She doesn’t know everything about him. But she at least knows that with him around, a better day is supposed to be dawning. He is the one God sent to save his people, to save them all from the mess they’re in. And Mary decides that it’s time for some of that to start happening. So she tells Jesus, They’re out of wine. They’re out of wine and that just won’t do!

Maybe. But Jesus isn’t ready to do anything about it. What does that have to do with us? he says. He’s a little irritated with Mary. And he makes no effort to hide it. Then he adds an explanation. My time hasn’t come yet. Really, mother! You want me to make wine? I may as well have spent my childhood carving wooden birds and making them fly away! That’s not what I’m about. And this isn’t the time or the place. Not here. Not now.

Mary doesn’t argue with her son. Instead she turns to the servants. Do whatever he tells you. That’s what she says to them. Do whatever he tells you. She knows Jesus will do something. She is his mother, after all.

You know the rest. Jesus gives instructions to the servants. They fill up some large stone water jars with more than a hundred gallons of water. And when they scoop a cupful and bring it to the master of ceremonies, somehow it has become wine. The best wine he’s tasted all day. The best wine he’s tasted in a long time. Party on!

It was a sign. The first sign that Jesus performed. That’s what John says. That’s how Mary remembered it. And that’s how she told John about it. And that’s how Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael remembered it too. They were there.

It was a sign. The first sign that Jesus performed. And it revealed his glory. It revealed the presence of God in Jesus. We have seen his glory. That’s what John says near the beginning of his gospel. We have seen his glory. And it started in Cana of Galilee. At a wedding.

But wait a minute! Did you see Jesus perform a sign? Did you see Jesus do anything? He told the servants to fill up the water jars. And they did. He told the servants to scoop some out. And they did. He told them to bring it to the master of ceremonies. And they did. And somehow, somewhere, at some point, the water became wine.

But Jesus didn’t do anything. He didn’t strike the jars with his walking staff. He didn’t raise his arms and call down power from heaven. He didn’t summon his deepest voice and say, Let there be wine! Even if you were there, even if you were right next to Jesus, you would have missed it. Because he didn’t do anything.

The servants knew that something had happened. Something unheard of. But they didn’t know how. The disciples—there were only four of them so far—the disciples had no idea how it had happened. But they figured Jesus was behind it.

Mary knew. Of course, Mary knew. She was the one behind it all. It was her idea. It was her initiative. She’s the one who decided that, yes, Jesus’ time had come. That, yes, this is the time and this is the place. And that, yes, wine is a good way to start. Because when God comes back to be with his people, there has to be a party. There has to be food. There has to be music and dancing. And there has to be wine. Plenty of wine. Because it’s a wedding we’re going to.

But it’s not just the fact of the wine. It’s what the wine means. It means that God has come back to his people. It means that God is with them. Yet it’s a sign that could easily be missed. In fact, most everyone at that wedding had no idea what had happened. They had no idea that God was with them, transforming an emptied-out, about-to-come-crashing-down happening into a real party. They had no idea. But God was still there. God was still blessing them.

I wonder how often God works that way. Unrecognized. Unseen. Usually, when I complain about what God isn’t doing, I’m complaining about what I’m not seeing. The world is changing. It’s changing right under our feet. Things that we counted on don’t seem such a sure thing any more. And we wonder. And we worry. And we look for God to do something about it. And we complain.

I complain anyway. God, how many schoolchildren have to die before we overthrow our Second Amendment idolatry? How long will guns be a god? And since we appear to be powerless to overcome the vested interests that worship steel and gunpowder and lead, when will you do something about it? Don’t you want to see God do something like that? And aren’t you disappointed when God doesn’t make it happen?

I complain to God about the church, too. God, why aren’t you filling these seats every Sunday? You see what’s going on here. You see the trends. You see our discouragement. You see that we can’t figure out what to do about it. So why don’t you do something about it. Why don’t you give us a vision? Give it to somebody here. A vision for a new kind of church. A new kind of ministry. Why don’t you plant that vision hard and strong in someone’s mind, in someone’s heart. So strong that she’ll have to tell all the rest of us. So strong that we’ll all listen. That we’ll be like water become wine. That we’ll have a place in your mission like we’ve never had before. God, why don’t you do something like that?

That’s what I want to see. That’s what I hope for. So that’s what I pray for. Please, tell me you have the same hope. Please, tell me you pray the same prayer. There’s nothing wrong with that prayer. There’s nothing wrong with that dream. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more, with wanting to be all we can be for God. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be filled with the joy of God’s presence. So full that we overflow. So full that it’s catchy.

But if the story of the wedding in Cana is any indication, then maybe Jesus is already doing things, doing things that we don’t even recognize. Doing things we might not think to give him credit for.

Last Sunday Drew played a piece on the piano. Drew has an obvious hunger and talent for the piano. And didn’t we all smile, didn’t we all swell a little bit with joy and pride last Sunday. And wasn’t that Jesus at work? Jesus at work patiently and unseen for years?

This coming Saturday, Men’s Breakfast will meet again. Men’s Breakfast started I don’t know how many years ago. And for all the ups and downs we’ve experienced as a congregation, Men’s Breakfast has survived. You could even say it’s thrived. Not that we have fifty people on a Saturday morning— There is always room for more. Men, if you don’t come, why don’t you start? Not that we have fifty people on a Saturday morning, trying to squeeze into the parish house. But we have a small community. And over the years we have gotten to know each other a little better. And we have come to love each other a little more. And isn’t that a sign of the presence of Jesus? Hasn’t Jesus been at work in us for a long time now?

And let’s not forget Wednesday prayers. And let’s not forget Sunday mornings. Think about what goes on here among us week after week. We come looking for Jesus. And we find out he’s already looking for us. We come to have fellowship with Jesus. And we find out he has come to have fellowship with us. We come and we speak to God in prayer. God comes and God speaks to us in the Word. And Jesus, sweet Jesus, comes to us in the body and the blood. And we are in heaven with him. The bread and the cup come to us as foretastes of the future, foretastes of the great wedding feast, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. But isn’t Jesus with us right now through the bread and the cup? And doesn’t our joy already begin to overflow?

So, I’ll keep on praying for visible things. For clear signs of God’s presence. For big and better things to happen.

Meanwhile, there will always be the likelihood that something unnoticed, something unseen—there will always be the likelihood that something as ordinary as water is filled with the wine of God’s presence. Because God’s glory is all around us. Maybe we can’t see it. Maybe we can’t recognize it. But it’s real. As real as the air we breathe. As real as the ground we stand on. As real as the bread and cup we share.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


03:33:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1770 words  
Categories: Epiphany 2013


Sermon preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
January 13, 2013

Holy God, if it were up to us, we wouldn’t be here today. But you whisper in our hearts. You stir our souls. You guide our steps. And here we are. Here we are, ready to listen. Here we are, ready to eat and drink. Here we are, ready to be touched, ready to be transformed. Do what you do, Lord, what we could never do. Make our faith a little stronger. Make our fears and doubts a little smaller. Make our vision a little wider and our hope a little taller. And because of your work in us, make your glory a little greater. Amen.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 2
Hebrews 13:1-7
Matthew 3:11-17

Who am I? Why am I here? Those are basic questions. Questions we ask when we come to a crossroads and have to decide which way to go. And they’re profound questions. Questions we ask on long nights when sleep refuses to come. They’re also important questions. Questions we ask when God stirs our hearts.

Who am I? That’s a question about my identity. Why am I here? That’s a question about my purpose. And those two questions go together. Because who I am determines why I’m here. And why I’m here determines who I am.

It was no different with Jesus. That’s why, again and again, the Gospels address the question of who Jesus is and, along with it, the question of why Jesus is here.

We can see it in his baptism. The heavenly voice says, This is my beloved son. Now, when our theological ears hear that, we think about Jesus as the eternal Son of God. We think about Jesus as the second member of the Holy Trinity. But that’s our theological ears getting ahead of things. Because the force of the statement is somewhere else.

The voice from heaven, which is presumably the voice of the God of Israel—the voice from heaven claims Jesus as a son. This says at least two things about Jesus. First, it identifies Jesus himself as Israel. In the old scriptures, God refers to Israel as my son, even as my firstborn son. So here, with a handful of words, the voice from heaven identifies Jesus as Israel. Which means Jesus is the one through whom God will bless the whole world.

But that’s not all. The designation son of God means more than that. When God points to Jesus and says, This is my son, it also means that Jesus is the king. First, that he is the king of the Jews. And, beyond that, that he is God’s one true king on the earth (cp. Psalm 2).

So those few words from heaven may hint at the Trinity. But chiefly they identify Jesus as Israel, God’s chosen instrument of blessing to the world, and as God’s king, the one who will bring about God’s rule over the earth. That’s his identity. That’s his purpose. That’s who Jesus is. And that’s why he is here.

And let’s not forget the Spirit. The Spirit falls upon Jesus when he comes up from the waters of baptism. This is the Spirit of anointing. This is the Spirit that marks Jesus out as the Messiah, which means the Anointed One.

And who is the Messiah? The Messiah is the one who will put right the ancient wrongs. The Messiah is the one who will fulfill the destiny of Israel, the destiny of all humanity, the destiny, in fact, of the whole creation. The Spirit falls upon Jesus to identify him. And at the same time, the Spirit comes upon Jesus to equip him for this earth-shaking, universe-rebuilding purpose.

But notice how the Spirit comes upon Jesus. As a dove. John the Baptist had expected Jesus to be a “baptist,” too. Only Jesus wouldn’t baptize with water. According to John, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But when Jesus came down to the Jordan, he didn’t light the river on fire like some first century Cuyahoga. He didn’t scorch the enemies of God. And he didn’t melt a small remnant of Israel into purity. No, the Spirit came upon Jesus as a dove, as an emblem of peace. This identified Jesus. And at the same time it hinted at how he would fulfill his purpose.

Which brings us back to the heavenly voice. I am delighted with him, the voice says from heaven. Those are familiar words. God says the same thing through Isaiah the prophet. Here is my servant, he says, my chosen one in whom I delight (Isaiah 42:1). So when Jesus is baptized, those words of delight identify him as the servant of the Lord. And when the Spirit comes upon him, that confirms this identity. Because God tells Isaiah, I will put my Spirit on [my servant].

And there’s more. Because the ancient words move directly from the servant’s identity to the servant’s purpose: He will bring justice to the nations . . . [he will] establish justice on earth (vv. 1,4). This is God’s answer when the servant asks, Why am I here? This is God’s answer when Jesus asks, Why am I here? The answer is justice.

What kind of justice? John the Baptist sees a severe judgment coming. He expects a settling of accounts. He predicts a separating of chaff from wheat, with the wheat gathered into the kingdom and the chaff burning forever. But Isaiah sees a different picture. And the Spirit-dove draws a different picture.

According to Isaiah, here’s how the Lord’s servant will bring justice: I will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness (vv. 6-7). Like all true justice, this justice will put things right. But notice, the focus is on the positive aspects of justice. The focus is on undoing what’s wrong more than on punishing wrongdoers. The focus is on a future of hope and healing rather than on a past of despair and deprivation. No wonder Jesus says, I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). That was his purpose.

That’s why the Gospel is good news. That’s why it’s such a positive message. That’s why we have such a positive, hopeful message to live by. That’s why we have such a positive, hopeful message to share.

Yes, there is judgment. Yes, when justice is done, there is a price to pay. But Jesus came into the world to save the world, not to condemn the world. And the great fire of judgment that John the Baptist saw—that great fire fell on Jesus. His punishment is our forgiveness. His doom is our salvation. His death is our life. Believe it! Trust it! Count on it! Live it! Share it!

This is the day when we remember Jesus’ baptism. It’s also a good day to remember our own baptism. Because just like with Jesus, our baptism reveals our true identity and purpose. Our baptism tells us who we are. That before we are anything else—before we are female/male, young/old, weak/strong, rich/poor, black/brown—before we are anything else, we are children of God. And our baptism tells us why we’re here. That we share Jesus’ anointing. And that, like him, we are servants of God.

As servants of God, we share the good news. And what a story we have to tell! Now, of course, every nation, every language, every culture, every religion has its story. But I’ve never heard another story like the story we have in the Bible, the story of God and Israel and the world, the story of Jesus and the Spirit and the church.

Karen Lee-Thorp has new book out. It’s called Story of Stories: a Guided Tour from Genesis to Revelation (IVP Books, 2012). I’m about a third of the way through, and with each page I appreciate the Bible’s story more and more. So I strongly recommend it. We have a story to tell, and it’s important that we get the story straight!

But, of course, there’s more. As servants of God, we love and pray for our neighbors. So often we think that the church exists for our own sake. And it’s no wonder. We live in an economically-dominated culture. Buying and selling are everything. Businesses, government agencies, schools, hospitals—they all exist to cater to our needs and desires. Pity the institution that doesn’t please us! Trouble is, we’ve come to think of the church, so many of us—we’ve come to think of the church as an institution that’s here to serve and satisfy and please us.

But we are the church. And we have a priestly ministry. That means we offer ourselves to the world for the world. At the very least—and maybe more than anything else—that involves prayer, a particular kind of prayer. I’ve tried to model it here to some degree. It’s hard to do. We’re not practiced at it.

We do have a long prayer tradition. But it doesn’t help us much. Because when we gather together on Sunday morning or on Wednesday, it’s not so much to say a congregational prayer, where we pray for each other and for our own needs. More than anything, it’s to say a priestly prayer. A prayer for the world. A prayer for the nations, for their leaders and for their citizens who suffer. A prayer for our neighbors. A prayer for the poor and the homeless. A prayer for the sick and for those in prison.

And if we are going to pray for ourselves, then our prayer ought to be that God will transform us and shape us into living sacrifices, to use Paul’s words from Romans 12. So that we can be of some good to our neighbors. So that we can be of some good to someone who needs a leg up or a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on.

That doesn’t mean we don’t care for and pray for each other. Of course we do. But we care for and pray for each other so that we can be God’s servant people, so that we can fulfill our priestly ministry. Because we have been baptized. Because we share Jesus’ anointing. Because we are servants. Because we are children of God.

That’s what it means to be Christian. That’s what it means to be baptized. That’s who we are. That why we’re here.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


05:33:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1418 words  
Categories: Advent 2012


Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
December 23, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 11:6-9
Psalm 117
Romans 8:18-25
Luke 1:26-38

Come among us, Lord, and come close to us. Quiet the noise around us and the turmoil within us. Let us hear the whisper of your grace, gently calling to us. And let us feel the breath of heaven, warming our hands and our hearts, stirring up genuine faith among us, faith that we share, faith that unites us to each other and to you, faith that unites us in hope. Stay with us, dear Lord, until we hear you, until we taste you, until we love you. Amen.

Some things are hard to believe. Most of us, I think, are skeptical of modern-day miracle stories. Especially when there is a miracle-worker involved! And, of course, we find it hard to believe when a random telephone call offers us a free Alaskan cruise with no obligation. And we find it hard to believe when a political candidate tells us she has a surefire plan to fix the economy. Things like that, lots of them, are hard to believe.

But some things are more than hard to believe. Some things are impossible to believe. For example, unless you’ve been seriously misinformed or you’re deliberately fooling yourself, it’s impossible to believe that the universe is six thousand years old. It’s also impossible to believe that you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. And if a pregnant teenager told you she never had sex with anyone, that would be impossible to believe, too.

But we tell a story like that last one every December, don’t we? A story about a young woman who never had sex with anyone. A young woman who got pregnant any way. Impossible! But there’s the story. It’s in the Gospel. Matthew tells it one way. Luke tells it another. But the heart of the story is the same. Mary gets pregnant without the involvement of a man.

Do you believe it? Is it okay not to believe it? Or do you have to believe this impossible story, and maybe a lot of other impossible stuff, in order to be a Christian? Some people think so. For them faith is about biting down hard, furrowing your brow, and believing the unbelievable.

I don’t think that’s what faith is about. Faith doesn’t mean believing that the earth is six thousand years old when it clearly is so much older. Faith doesn’t mean believing that the story of Job has to be historical in order to be true. And faith doesn’t mean believing that demon-possession explains epilepsy.

But what about Mary? What about her no-man-involved pregnancy? It is an article of faith. It’s in the Apostles’ Creed. It’s in the Nicene Creed. But for some Christians, it’s more than an article of faith. For some Christians, it’s a litmus test. If you don’t believe that Mary got pregnant without a man, then you obviously don’t have faith in the power of God.

For some people, Mary’s pregnancy is one of those acts of God proving that God really is god, that God really is almighty. For some people, it’s really important to be able to say that about God. To be able to say that God measures up to an objective standard of “god-ness.” For God to be god, God has to be almighty without limit. As Psalm 115 puts it, God has to be able to do whatever he wants.

Nothing God says will be impossible. That’s what Gabriel the angel says to Mary the virgin. Nothing God says will be impossible. But the point is not that God is a miracle-worker. The point is not that God has this raw power by which God can do anything and everything with nothing to prevent him from doing it. No, the point is that God is able to accomplish his intentions. That God will achieve his saving purposes. And that whatever could be an obstacle won’t be able to stand in the way.

Faith doesn’t expect us to hear the story of Mary’s pregnancy and conclude, Wow! God did something impossible! No. By faith we hear that story and conclude, Wow! The Son of God humbled himself. He emptied himself. He became next to nothing. An embryo. A fetus. A baby. A child. A man.

If you really want to talk about the impossible, then don’t talk about Mary’s manless pregnancy. How hard is that for God, when God can do whatever he wants? No, if you want to talk about the impossible, talk about God becoming a human being.

No earthly temple has enough room for God. The whole earth doesn’t have enough room for God. This multi-billion light year, expanding universe doesn’t have enough room for God. Yet all the fullness of God came to live among us in a baby, in a boy, in a man. Impossible. But we believe it. We believe it not because we’re convinced that God can do the impossible, so we’ll grit our teeth and believe it no matter how little sense it makes. No, we believe it because the Holy Spirit has convinced us. Because the Holy Spirit has convinced us that this story of the faithfulness and love of God rings true.

Whether we could ever verify it or validate its claims, this story of God with us, this story of God in human flesh, this story is the greatest story ever told, and it has a firm hold of us. We know in our bones that it’s true. Again not because God is so powerful that he can do whatever he wants, but because this story so fully expresses the grace and mercy of God, the grace and mercy by which God defines himself.

Which doesn’t mean we automatically believe everything about this story. Which doesn’t mean we don’t struggle trying to believe parts of it. Isaiah’s vision of a world completely at peace? A world in which the lion and the lamb lie down together? We know better than to believe that! That’s an impossible world. Nothing in our experience prepares us for a world without bloodshed. We live in the world of the Sandy Hook school shooting. And since then, in just a week, more than a hundred Americans have died from gun violence. That’s the world we know. Isaiah’s vision? Impossible!

The Apostle Paul has a vision of the entire creation being liberated from its bondage to decay. But we can’t believe that. We live in a world of raging storms and melting polar ice caps. We live in a world where ground water and sea water have become a chemical stew. We live in a world of kegs and drums filled with tens of thousands of years’ worth of nuclear waste. And we live in a solar system whose sun only has so many years of life remaining—far fewer than eternity. So a world, a creation, that isn’t falling apart, flying apart, pulling itself apart? Impossible!

There’s no reason, not a reason in the world, to imagine that Isaiah’s vision will become reality. And there’s not a reason in the world to think that Paul is right, to think that creation will stop falling apart and that we ourselves will stop falling apart. Not a reason in the world.

Except that God has said so. And nothing God says will be impossible. And the point, as I take it any way, is not that God has power enough to remake the world. The point is not that God has the almighty power to grab the universe and send it in a different direction. The point is that God wants to remake the world. The point is that God intends things to be different. The point is that God plans this to be a world of peace and joy and life. And what God intends, God does. Even at the cost of becoming a baby, a man. Even at the cost of a cross.

Impossible! That’s what we say. But God does what he wants. Just as he wanted to be born of Mary without a man’s involvement, so he wants to remake the world so that we all will live in it together without destroying each other. And so that God will live there with us.

Impossible? Maybe. But it is true and it will be true. That’s what we believe.

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.


04:13:00 pm, by Robert Arbogast , 1683 words  
Categories: Advent 2012

An Unexpected Turning

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Robert A. Arbogast
Olentangy Church, Columbus, Ohio
December 16, 2012

Scripture Readings
Isaiah 11:1-5
Psalm 72
Hebrews 7:1-3
Luke 1:57-66

Lord, come to us now through the word. Come to chase the shadows away. Come and impress us with your glory and your grace. Come to transform us until we are your faithful servants. Amen.

Something was happening. Something longed for. And at the same time, something unexpected. Something was happening. Something that made all the difference in the world to an old couple living in the Judean hills. Something was happening. Something that made all the difference in the world to a young woman (or was she still a girl?) who was looking forward to marriage. Something was happening. Something that would make all the difference in the world to the whole world.

Something was happening, something unexpected. And it led people to say and do unexpected things. It led Mary, the pregnant virgin, to declare a revolution, a revolution launched from heaven itself.

The Lord God my Savior
has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

That’s the Song of Mary, and those were not welcome words. Not to powerful people. Not two thousand years ago. And Mary’s words aren’t welcome today either. Not to the 1%. Not to the 5%. Not to rich people. Not to rich nations. What’s Mary doing? Announcing a war on wealth accumulation? What’s she doing? Turning God into Robin Hood?

But something was happening. Something unexpected. And it led people to say and do unexpected things.

He’s going to be called John. Is that really what Elizabeth said? All the family and friends and neighbors couldn’t believe their ears. After all, children were named after parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Families kept names alive in their family tree. And no one in this family tree—not from the roots up—no one in this family tree was named John. But Elizabeth said, He’s going to be called John. And when people protested, her husband Zechariah took a stylus in his hand and wrote, His name is John!

Unexpected. Unusual. Unheard of. Apparently old patterns didn’t necessarily apply any more. How else to explain Zechariah and Elizabeth having a son at their age! Old patterns didn’t necessarily apply any more. They were all well and good on their own, those usual ways for things to happen. But just now God was doing a new thing. And all the family and friends and neighbors—everybody who heard about it—they all wondered, What is this child going to be?

Speaking of new and unexpected things, Isaiah had a strange vision. Something unheard of. Something no one had ever seen before. He saw a king coming, a king for Israel. But a different kind of king.

This king would be filled with the Spirit of God. That Spirit would give him knowledge and understanding. That Spirit would enable him to make wise decisions. That Spirit would give him power and at the same time a proper fear of the Lord. And this—this is the amazing part, the unheard of part—and this king would delight, not in his power—

And a king has to have power. A king can’t get anything done without power. He can understand a problem completely and craft a wise solution, but if he doesn’t have the power to implement the solution, then all his understanding and wisdom are useless. So power is necessary for a king.

But this king would not delight in his power. He would not delight in what he could do with that power. No, this king would delight in the fear of the Lord. In other words, everything that the Spirit had given him, he would use for the sake of God’s kingdom and glory, not his own.

Judging by Isaiah’s vision, you would be able to tell when a king like that was around. Because it would be good news for the poor and needy. And it would be bad news for the people who despise the poor and needy. That’s not the way kings usually behave. They do have their own interests to look after. And they do have their own people to look after, people like themselves, people with money and power and influence. (And don’t those three always go together?!)

But this king, the king Isaiah sees—he will be a different kind of king, an unusual king. The kind of king who will make Mary’s song a reality. The kind of king who will lift up the lowly. The kind of king who will fill the hungry with good things. The kind of king who will send the rich away empty. Isaiah sees the kind of king who will invite poor and homeless people to his inaugural ball instead of people who made big donations. Of course, we would never expect that from a king. And we would never expect that from a president. We know better.

But Isaiah knew better than all of us. He knew the kind of king God would establish over his kingdom. It’s the kind of king the psalmist saw. A king who will rule the poor with justice. A king who will defend the needy among the people. A king who will rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

In other words, an unexpected, never-before-experienced kind of king. Which should transform our conceptions of what royal rule and almighty power are about. Which should transform the standard we hold our leaders to—and the standard we hold ourselves to.

Do you think our leaders are echoing the focus and priorities of God’s kingdom? I don’t. Isaiah has no vision of a king who will look after the middle class. Psalm 72 doesn’t say the king will slash entitlements while maintaining tax relief for the middle class. The family and friends and neighbors of Zechariah and Elizabeth don’t say, I wonder how God will use this baby to benefit the middle class.

And when Abraham gives a tenth to Melchizedek, that priest doesn’t reply by saying, Didn’t you hear, rich Abraham? God has reduced a tithe to 7.65%. It’s a special program for all you job-creating sheep farmers and slave holders.

No. God has something different in mind than what we have in mind. God intends to create a kingdom that doesn’t look like what we’ve been sold all these years as the real dream. Isaiah sees a king unlike any other. A king who doesn’t fit the mold. A king who comes out of nowhere—like Melchizedek, who shows up out of nowhere in the middle of the biblical story, then disappears just as quickly. A character no one can get a handle on. A character that no one can claim and use for their own purposes. A character who serves God’s purposes and only God’s purposes. And God’s purposes are just and right and fair.

So expect the unexpected. When God is around, when God is at work, expect the unexpected. Don’t expect things to stay the way they’ve always been. Not in the world at large. Not in your home. Not on the job. Not in the church. Expect the unexpected. And be ready to welcome what God is doing or what God might do, even when about the only thing you can say is, What is this child going to be? Or, What is this going to turn into? Or, If we go ahead and do this, then what next?

Last Tuesday evening, I was meeting with a group of men at the Marion prison. One them said to me, Give us the Gospel. Then he said it again. Give us the Gospel. I didn’t know what he meant. So I asked him some questions. Do you need Bibles? Do you need books for the library? Biblical studies, theology? He told me that stuff would be great. But he repeated, Give us the Gospel.

After some more conversation, I think I know what he meant. He was asking for us older, established Christians and Christian institutions to entrust the Gospel to him and to his companions. To entrust the Gospel to young black men in prison. To do it without fear. To support them in prayer. And to be ready to see some unexpected things as God uses them to reach into a broken and dysfunctional community in ways we never could, in ways we would never dream of.

Keep doing what you’re doing, he told me. That’s good. But let us do what we can do. Give us the gospel. Put it in our hands. Entrust the message to us.

I suppose it’s not a whole lot different from what happens in church planting. Maybe you know this. But churches that grow are, by and large, new churches. Old churches pretty much stay the same or get smaller. One reason new churches grow is because they are ready for God to work in unexpected, unusual, even unheard of ways. They’re less likely to say, That’s not how it’s done! They’re less likely to say, But no one in your family is named John! They’re less likely to say, But this is what a king looks like. Kings always look like this.

Everyone asked, What is this child going to be? Well, John would grow up to be a prophet. A prophet again, when there had been no prophet for ages. And what a prophet he was! Preparing the way. Announcing the coming of God.

And when Jesus came, he sure turned out to be a different kind of king. Not at all what we would expect. Certainly not what John the Baptist expected! But that’s okay. God doesn’t need to meet our expectations. Not then. And not now.

I wonder what God is doing these days. I wonder what God is about to do. I wonder what God is about to do even around here. Will we trust God enough to let things take an unexpected turning?

In the Name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit.

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