Sunday, November 29, 2015

GOD’S SERVANTS: ZACHARIAH by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

I used to sit on the Board of Ordained Ministry for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Candidates would come to us who wanted to be pastors. They were at various stages in their education and training. 
 Often we would hear stories something like this. “When I was younger, in high school, I heard a call to ministry. I knew God wanted me to serve in full time ministry. I could tell that God had given me the gifts to be a pastor. But I was afraid.”

Then they would say something like this: “So I went to college and studied accounting,” or “I became a teacher;” or “I went into business and became a sales person. I did this other thing for years. I got active in a local church. I would teach Bible study. I became chair of the Church Council, but still God kept pursuing me.” 

Or maybe they would say, “I ran as far away from the church as I could, but still God was there.” “Finally,” the person would say, “I could not run any more. God won. I answered the call. I went to seminary. I have decided to be a pastor, and now my heart is at peace. I know I am living the life God put me on this earth to live. I am surrendering to the future God has in mind for me. And I’m on fire to serve God.” 

These people make really great pastors, because they know, without a doubt, this is what they are called to do. They have tested God and they have tested themselves. And they have come home to be the person God created them to be. 

Today’s story is such a story of answering God’s call (Luke 1:5-25 from The Message Paraphrase for those following along from afar) . Zachariah was already a priest. He had a wife named Elizabeth. The emptiness in their lives was that they had no children. But we’re told they were honorable people, living blameless before God. It just happened that Elizabeth could not conceive. One day, came Zachariah’s time to serve in the sanctuary of God, the temple in Jerusalem which was the center of worship for the Jews. This was probably the one time in his life he would be called upon to serve at the Jerusalem temple. It was a high honor and it was his turn. 

The congregation was outside praying and Zachariah was inside burning incense, when lo and behold an angel appeared to him! He was frightened as anyone would be when an angel appears. The scripture says he was paralyzed in fear. But the angel reassured him. A conversation ensues between them:

“Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”
18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”

Zachariah went back outside to the congregation. They were wondering what had been taking him so long. They realized he could not speak and they knew he must have had a vision. He went home and not long after that Elizabeth conceived a child. 

Now we didn’t read this part of the story, but as the story goes on Elizabeth gives birth to the child and everyone is calling the baby Zachariah, expecting him to be named after his father. Elizabeth says his name will be John. The people are puzzled because no one in either of their families is names John. They go to Zachariah and he writes on a tablet: “The baby shall be called John” and at that moment his speech is returned. 

You see, Zachariah finally understands that he must answer God’s call upon his life. He decides to be faithful. Just like all those pastors who came before the Board of Ordained Ministry and after years of saying “no” finally said “yes.” The call of Zachariah and Elizabeth was to be the parents of John the Baptist. They waited a long time to be parents, so long that they were sure their time had passed. 

But God had other plans. God needed them to be the parents of John who would prepare a way for Jesus. John preaches and baptizes and gets people ready to hear the message of Jesus. John clears a path in the desert and makes a way for Jesus to come on the scene. Without John, the people would not have been ready. Zachariah and Elizabeth were crucial to this whole sequence of events. They had to say “yes” to the call that God put upon their lives. But at first Zachariah said “no.” He said to the angel, “You are crazy. My wife is too old to have a baby.” He forgot that nothing it too amazing for God. 

Just like those pastors who denied God’s call upon their lives, Zachariah said to the angel, “God can’t be giving us a baby. You must be mistaken.” The angel got perturbed that Zachariah would not listen and the angel made Zachariah mute in order to get his attention. It worked. 

During those nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zachariah must have prayed long and hard about the angel’s prophecy about their son, that he would herald God’s arrival and get people ready for God. When the time came to name the baby, they gave him the name of God’s choosing: John. 

Zachariah was faithful to God. Elizabeth and Zachariah raised John to be the person God needed him to be. They did not fail God. 

So, what about you? Have you ever felt God calling you to do something? Perhaps one of you has felt a call to ministry and now is the time for you to say “yes” to that call. Or perhaps God is nudging you to something else? There are many, many ways that God can use us. 

This is the season we call Advent – four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In this season we wait for Jesus. We wait to celebrate his birth once again, and we wait to experience the in-breaking of God’s love into our world in a fresh way. This is a time to watch and wait. This is a time to pay attention. This is a time to pray and ask God: What do you have to say to me? Are you calling me to some new thing? Advent is a time of new beginnings. 

Is God calling you to something new? A new job? A new relationship? Perhaps a new attitude? Zachariah and Elizabeth were called to a new attitude. They had given in to the attitude of being old and washed up. They had given up on the idea of new life being part of their future. And then God surprised them with a baby of all things. Are you stuck in an attitude? Does God have a surprise in store for you? Some new start? Some new way of being? What might the Christ child bring to you at Christmas? 

When we step into something new, we have to leave behind something old and familiar. We have to give up old habits that are dragging us down. We have to give up patterns of thinking that are not productive in order to turn to new ways of thinking that are better and more creative. Zachariah and Elizabeth had a small view of life. He was a simple priest and she was a wife. But now, well, now God was calling them to be the parents of the one who would prepare the way for the Son of God! They could no longer think their lives were small. They had to dream big about what their son would be and do and who this Messiah would be. 

Are you caught in a small view of your life?  Is it possible God might have big dreams for you? What would it look like for you to join God in dreaming big about your future? Think about it for a minute. Don’t worry about practical constraints. Just dream about who you could be if you were filled with all the potential God has placed inside of you. 

This story is about God taking ordinary human beings and doing extraordinary things through them. Zachariah and Elizabeth had long given up on the idea of being parents and yet God made them parents of the one who would prepare us for the coming of Jesus. Every day, someone who feels unworthy, answers the call to be a pastor. Because they put their trust in God. We are just ordinary human beings, giving ourselves to the extraordinary task of ministry. 

So what about you? Are you ready to dream with God? As we enter this Advent season of new beginnings will you open your ordinary self to God’s extraordinary dreams for you? I hope you will use these four weeks to listen to God. Imagine what new adventures God might have in store for you. Put your trust in God. And when you hear God calling, be ready to answer with a resounding “YES!” Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

PAY ATTENTION TO GOD by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

This is Thanksgiving week: a time when Americans pause to consider our blessings and give thanks. My Facebook page has been filled all month with people taking time for a daily message of gratitude. 

This is a great exercise. My preaching mentor, Fred Craddock, tells us that the text we read for today reminds us “that gratitude is not simply a generalized orientation but is properly gratitude to God who provides for our needs, relieving us of a consuming anxiety about material things.” (Matthew 6:24-34 from The Message Paraphrase for those following along from afar) Simply put, when we are grateful, we trust God, and we don’t stress out so much about material things. 

It’s interesting that Thanksgiving comes right before Christmas, the most materialistic holiday of them all. We go crazy at Christmas buying stuff for one another, and truth be told, buying stuff for ourselves. We just can’t resist those sales. We get caught up in our dependence on material things as a way to feed our hunger, right after we have celebrated Thanksgiving, a time to give thanks to God for simple blessings in life. How I wish we could continue the theme of Thanksgiving through the season of Christmas! To be grateful for the blessing of Jesus and to simply give thanks to God for this miracle. 

But we human beings do not seem to be able to stay in this attitude of gratitude for long. We fall into another mode of operation. Rather than trusting in God, we begin to worry. We worry that we don’t have enough. That we’re not safe enough. And after all there are plenty of things to worry about, aren’t there?

A Gallup poll taken last March gave us a list of the top 10 things that Americans worry about:
11)       The availability and affordability of healthcare

22)       The economy

33)      The possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S.

44)      The Social Security system

55)      The size and power of the federal government

66)      The way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.

77)      Hunger and homelessness

88)      Crime and violence

99)      Illegal immigration

110)  Drug use 

As I reflect on this list I see that at least half of them have to do with money. We worry about money A LOT.   Amen?

Our text for today shows that Jesus knows us pretty well.  Because when he was preaching to the people, he showed that he understood that they worried about money. He said, “You can’t serve God and money. Because if you love one you’ll end up hating the other one. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other one.” 

This is why. When we serve money, we don’t have room in our lives for God. We put our trust in money. We begin to think that if we just had enough money we would be happy. But enough is never enough. We always want more. Our thirst for money and material goods is insatiable. But Jesus comes along and turns our thinking upside down. Or perhaps, he turns it right-side up. 

Jesus says:

If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to God than birds.

Jesus says that if we make God the most important thing in our lives, we won’t worry so much about all that other stuff. We’ll have the food we need and clothes to wear. But we won’t care if we have the latest fashions. There is more to life than designer clothes. You see, when we love God, we will be concerned about the things of God: loving other people, showing compassion, and doing justice in the world. We will be so laser-focused on making this world a better place for everyone, we won’t have time to worry about what’s in fashion or what we are lacking. 

We spend so much time trying to get ahead and Jesus says: “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving.”  This is the week of Thanksgiving. It is not a time of getting stuff (even though the retailers want you to rush on to Christmas shopping) but it is a time of giving thanks and a time of responding to God’s giving to us. God gives us so much but we have to pay attention in order to see it. We have to slow down and open our eyes. 

God wants us to pay attention to the beauty that God has given us. Consider the wildflowers. Jesus says: “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do the best for you?” 

Imagine that there are fields of wildflowers in this world that no one will ever see but God. Can you imagine that?  Just pause for a moment to think about that. Such beauty and no human being will ever see it. And still it has value. 

How much more value do you have to God? God loves you and wants you to have an abundant life, but we spend our lives worrying. 

I will confess that I have been heartsick this week worrying about my son who is sick. I was writing this sermon about how we should not worry and I was worried. All I could do was worry about Jamie. How crazy is that? Of course it’s human nature. It’s hard for a mother not to worry about her sick child. But you see, when we trust in God, then we give our worry over to God. We let it go and we give it to God. Because God is the one who will care for us through anything. God will sit with a mother who has a sick child. God will comfort me and comfort Jamie and God will see us through. 

What do you worry about? Do you worry about money? Chances are, that is high on your list. Do you worry about basic needs? Do you worry about safety? With the recent terrorist attacks and heightened alerts, some of us are more concerned about safety than ever. Do you worry about the future? Do you worry about the relationships you have with people? Perhaps you worry about work. Or you worry about your children, or your aging parents. There are so many things to worry about. The list goes on and on.

Here is the truth. Worry does not change anything. It just drags us down into negative thinking. Negative thinking is a spiral. Once you get caught in it, you go down and down. And then it’s like someone has to throw you a lifeline and pull you out of your own negative thinking. Negative thinking and worry just pull us away from putting our trust in God. 

But friends we want to be drawn to God. We want to live in God’s sphere of influence, being showered with God’s blessing. We want the Holy Spirit to infuse everything we see and everything we do. We want to walk as children of the light. 

Jesus put it this way in the scripture:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.
Oh, how often do we worry about what MIGHT happen. We play out the worst case scenarios in our heads (worse still when you are a trained contingency thinker like Kurt). We can sometimes cause the worst to happen just because we are thinking about it so much. But Jesus says to stop this way of thinking. For example, my son is sick. I could be thinking about all the possible horrible things that could be wrong with him, even though the doctors have ruled out the really bad stuff. This kind of thinking does not help me and it does not help Jamie. I need to focus on trusting that he is going to get well soon, and putting my resources into that future. 

Jesus says, don’t worry about what might happen. God will help us with whatever hard things will come up when the time comes. Again, we need to put our trust in God.

What I like most about this scripture is this. Jesus says: don’t worry, instead pay attention to God. Look around. Use the beauty of God’s creation as a reminder that God is always with us. Look at a newborn baby and be reminded that God brings new life to any situation. Look at the wildflowers in the field (OK you may have to go buy some after this snow), the birds in the air. God takes care of them and God will take care of us. 

So in this week of Thanksgiving, pause to give thanks. Don’t get caught up in your worry. Focus on your blessings. Pay attention to the beauty God has given to us. Amen.