Palm Sunday

The Sermon I need to Preach

Sermon #936

March 8, 2020

Second Sunday of Lent

Service for the Lord’s Day with Confirmation and Holy Communion

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Genesis 12:1-4
Psalm 121
John 3:1-17

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Let us pray: God of Spirit and new birth, free us from our narrow understandings and help us to live as your born-again children with transformed hearts. Amen.

Questions about God, the church, the bible, the rules, faith.  These confirmands have asked, invited, pushed, and even demanded of the mentors and clergy. It has been wonderful, exciting and at times a very scary journey with these young people. I can’t speak for the other adults, but I have tried to take seriously the questions they ask even the one about cooking smores in hell. Even if I don’t have a clue as to what to say, what is important is the fact that each of them has a voice to ask. Their questions are vitally important because the inquiries show engagement and wonderings and testing. Can I believe in God?  Will I be accepted in the church? Does God really love me? These are at the heart of these confirmands’ questions. The good news is you aren’t the first class to ask them. Every year, every class, each student, askes them or something just like them. The bad news is we continue to ask them for the rest of our lifetime.

To be completely clear, I am thrilled that you are being confirmed or will be confirmed. I am happy that you are choosing to be confirmed as Presbyterians, because I am one, but it really isn’t a competition. It really isn’t that important if you are Presbyterian or Episcopalian in the long run. What is more important is that you are being confirmed to the Indian Hill Church. That you are publicly claiming the promises of God that your parents made for you at your Baptisms. Why is this important?

Every year for the past 23 that I have been a minister I have told the confirmation classes and confirmands is that God loves you, the church loves you and I love you. I want you to understand that. The bible stories, the creeds, the questions, the retreats are all important and will impact your life but what is more important is that you know that you are loved.

Over twenty-two years ago, Monnie and I were watching TV late at night when a knock came at our door.  I was startled but went to the door and opened it. Standing there was a teenager from my church. She was crying and she was clearly upset.  I welcomed her in and asked her what was wrong. She said that her father was upset with her and she was afraid. Why, I asked, and she said it was her boyfriend. Her father didn’t want her to see this boy. Why, I asked? She said well, he is black…”my daddy, is going to hurt him.” She needed to know that she was loved, valued and cared for by something beyond her family.

About fifteen years ago, I got a phone call from a young man who was in one of my early confirmation classes.  I hadn’t seen him in years because I had moved to a new church in a different State.  He was the youngest child in a very prominent family from this community.  He father was a State Supreme Court Judge and his mother was a School District assistant superintendent.  He said he would like to come visit me.  I said sure and he flew into town and came to my house. He wanted to talk, get some advice. He himself was a recent law school graduate and he was just starting work in a law firm. He said that he was in love and didn’t know what to do because he was in love with a woman who was separated but not completely divorced and she was pregnant with his child. He needed to know that God, the church, and I loved him.

I about ten years ago, a young man in one of my confirmation classes asked if he could talk. I said of course, we met in my office and he began to cry. “ I am so afraid, I am so ashamed, I have let my family down…I am failing out of College, I am thinking about killing myself. I am gay.” He needed to know that God, the church, and I loved him.

Now, 99% of the confirmation classes, the confirmands move on and when we cross paths at ballgames, or church or school we do the awkward hello, wave or smile.  So, I don’t tell you these stories to inflate my importance or shock you, I tell you these examples because you need to know that God, the church, your mentors, and I love you. We are here for you and will always love you. You can call and ask for help, you can seek our advice, you can seek us out.  We aren’t concerned if you know the bible backward and forward or if you can recite the Lord’s Prayer from you heart or if you were blessed by the Bishop or not. You are a beloved child of God and loved by the church. That is what Confirmation is all about.

Now, that is why, Confirmation is more than a rite of passage. It is more than a box to check it is a reminder that you as all of us are loved by God, claimed by Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit. We all know how the Church, the people of God have failed, let people down and even caused great harm to African Americans, Women, Immigrants, LGBT humans, by upholding Slavery, the misinterpretation of verses to keep women silent, excluding others from the Table, and being a silent when a strong voice is so desperately needed on issues facing our world.  This is where you, the newest members of the Indian Hill Church come in…you are not the future of the church because today you are the church. That means you get a voice, a vote, power.  What does that mean?  Many of you in your faith statements said that you were going to be more involved in the life of the church. Hallelujah! With an H not the A-word. We welcome you.

Jesus says welcome the child and a little one will lead them. We need you and your energy, imaginations, your ideas and your leadership. Yes, you an eight grader can lead. In one of my former churches a young person put together a recycling program to recycle paper, cans, and plastic to help the church to learn more about saving the environment. Another young person asked why we couldn’t try some different music. So, the church began a different worship service with praise music. These are just two examples of the voice of young people can bring change.

Another way that you are important to the church. You, even you eighth graders are vitally important in helping the church to better understand this ever-changing world. Think of the church as your grandparents who love you very much, but we don’t understand Phones.  We still use landlines, and at best we have flip phones, are you old enough to remember them?  No screen clip them to your belt.  We might use Facebook, but we have no idea how to use SnapChat, Tic-tok, or what a hashtag is. Our VCR clocks are blinking, so don’t get mad or give up on us, we beg for your patience as we dip our toe into this brave new world. You will lead us in how to understand millennials and even love them.  In all seriousness, I want each of you to help us, your Church understand this new world and not to be so afraid of it. The problem we have is not that we don’t love but that we don’t understand and what we don’t understand scares us and when we are afraid, we forget how to love. Which brings me back to John 3:16-17

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

If you learn nothing more than that from this Confirmation journey, know this at the core of being a Christian, at the core of our faith, is a relationship, a relationship with God through the church. A relationship with God who sent his only Son, Jesus into the world to save us is the God who is still with us through thick and thin, day or night, good or bad, now and forever.  May you walk in the light and trust in the one who loves you and guides you every step of the way.


Temptation, Trust and God

March 1, 2020

First Sunday of Lent

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Matthew 4:1-11

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-11, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this Season of Lent, a time of repentance, draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.

Jesus has just emerged from the waters of the river Jordan and his baptism. Notice he doesn’t head off to a celebration with family and friends complete with a Confirmation cake.  There will be no nice photos next to the Jordan River, the Baptizer on one side, Mary and Joseph on the other with the smiling Jesus in the middle.  Instead, quickly after hearing the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased,” and seeing the Spirit descend, like a dove; this same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.[1] 

The wilderness— think — desert.  Deserts are dry barren areas of landscape where little to no precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plants, animals and humans.  The lack of vegetation and tree coverage exposes the unprotected earth to harsh conditions.  It is out here in this unrelenting space that Jesus is tempted.

Temptation.  We have just heard two stories of temptation — the first from Genesis.  We know it as Adam and Eve, or the fall and its tragic ending.  The other from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus in the wilderness and his extraordinary triumph.  If there is one thing that we all know, it is temptation.  We live with it daily.  When someone angers us, we are tempted to give him or her a piece of our mind.  When our cravings overwhelm us, we are tempted to give in to them.  You know the waiter as she removes your dinner plate, “Can I tempt you with some dessert today?”  If you have ever tried to quit something then you know how tempting it can be…that little voice in your head saying try it just this once, it will be different this time.  Temptation is a problem that never goes away and one we cannot solve on our own.  Twelve step programs know how true this is as one of the key steps is putting one’s trust in a higher power.

While there is a clear allusion in Jesus temptation to the story of Israel’s wandering – in the wilderness, the place of challenge; forty days reminiscent of the 40 years that the Israelites wandered – it is directly related to the temptation of Adam and Eve.

Both stories deal with temptation and we know temptation but on a basic level these are stories that cut to the heart of the Christian Faith, do we trust God?  Adam and Eve were told by God not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or else they will die.  The serpent tells them that this not true and he invites them to eat.  Ultimately the serpent is playing on their insecurity and is saying to Adam and Even can’t really trust God.[2]

In the same way after fasting 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus is visited by Satan who plays on his hunger and vulnerability.  Satan asks Jesus to a stone into bread. Then Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself off the Temple, and finally Satan tempts Jesus to bow down and worship him.  Each of these temptations strike at the assumption that God is not trustworthy.  That God will not provide, God will not save, and God is not worth placing one’s trust.

Trust or faith is the basis of the Christian Faith.  It is the currency that the church deals in.  Do we have the audacity to trust in God? Can we truly believe the promises of God as found in scripture?

It seems so quaint to give something up during Lent.  To force ourselves to face temptation, as if we don’t already face it enough or to sacrifice, which maybe a much more holy endeavor. Yet, in a small way, we identify with Jesus, who began his ministry this way.  Because, before he could be the true Messiah, he had to discover the sort of messiah he would not be.

The real battle, Jesus teaches, is to be waged and won in the believer’s heart. It goes much deeper than giving up chocolate, or alcohol, or cussing, or striving to be kind, for the next forty days.   The real issue of temptation is not trusting God. Satan’s temptation is the same for Jesus as it was in Genesis – the greatest temptation is to “become like God,” or to think that we do not need God.  This is especially true for us, American Christians.[3]

We are taught to work hard, just do it, if it is gonna be then it is up to me…Self-made woman, the American work ethic, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  Depend on only on yourself, your mind, your body, and your spirit. 

It may be my reformed education and my Presbyterian upbringing, but the Season of Lent is really more about God than it is about us. God is sovereign, meaning that God created all things, God rules over all things and God sustains all things.  While we are invited to examine ourselves and our lives during the season of Lent, it is extremely important to remember that ultimately Jesus is Lord and everything else is a distant second.  In saying that I don’t mean we don’t look at our brokenness and sin, and don’t care — instead we understand that we can’t fix our brokenness and sin that is God’s work, that is God’s promise.

That is at the heart of these temptations where Satan invites Jesus to imitate the Emperors in Rome who secured their own power by ruling people with an iron fist.

The temptations with which Jesus was faced are the very ones we, you and I, fall victim to on a regular, a daily basis.

In little subtle ways we seek popularity or power or possessions as a way of hedging our bets against the uncertainty of the world.

After all, we live in an age in which a disgruntled employee can go to his workplace and kill five of his co-workers; the corona virus seems to be spreading world wide, our stock market plunged as a result, and our political leadership seems to be in total chaos.  In our world – wars continue to rage, violence and senseless deaths remain shaking the very heart of our structures of belief.  A little control over our own lives and a bit of money securely invested, what’s wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing…

It comes down to a matter of faith, of trust, of belief and confidence in the promises of God to love and care for us throughout life’s trials and temptations.

In our world today it seems that God has lost control, that the world is in chaos and that God can’t be trusted. That is our temptation.

Satan tempted Jesus to do things that are selfish, and self-serving and ultimately self-glorifying.  And Jesus rejected them because being centered on self is inconsistent with being the Messiah, Christ, the Beloved, the Son of God, the one sent to save others.[4] The true temptation is do we have the courage to believe in the promises of God? This is what Lent is all about.

Let us pray:

[1] Reverend Christopher A. Joiner, “The Only Temptation of Christ” Lent 1 – (Year A) February 10, 2008 Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11. First Presbyterian Church Franklin, TN.

[2] Reverend Dr. Fred B. Craddock, “Testing That Never Ceases,” The Christian Century Living By The Word. February 28, 1990 Page 211.

[3] Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Matthew 4:1-11, The Lectionary Lab Year A — The First Sunday in Lent Posted on March 3, 2011

[4] Ibid.

Sermon 2-23

Good News or not?

February 2, 2020

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15:1-5
Matthew 5:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Let us pray: God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor, the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you. When we are foolish, be our wisdom; when we are weak, be our strength; that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, your will may come as blessing. Amen.

I can’t decide whether the Gospel passage is good news or not.  Of course, I know that everything in the Bible is “Good News,” but I am looking at on a much more personal level.  Is this good news for us modern day Christians?  We are not really hungry and thirsty people in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t think any of us are blocking the entrance to military bases, you might have decades ago but not so much today. We are more likely to promote peace by going green and at the ballot box.  Is that enough to be really considered a peacemaker.  Call me cynical but I hate to break it to you, none of us are really pure in heart.  Now some of us mourn, sometimes we are meek, occasionally we might be poor in spirit.  But overall, these descriptions don’t fit us.  So, it makes me wonder, how is this good news for us today?   Does this mean we don’t receive God’s blessing?  It is so, hard to know whether we read it as good news or bad news, but one thing is certain is that it is confusing.

So many of us in our modern-day world want quick fixes and easy answers- give us the facts.   Tell me exactly what to do to be a Christian, to be saved, to be blessed.  What do you want from me God?  Just cut to the essentials and tell me.

Keep this in mind as we explore the familiar beatitudes.  I think part of the problem with the beatitudes, as they are called, is that we misunderstand them.  We underestimate their power.  Even more important for understanding Matthew 5:1-12 is an understanding of what a beatitude is.  A beatitude is a blessing or announcement of God’s favor. This is where the sayings of Jesus get difficult for us.   Jesus is not commanding or demanding his listeners to do something: “We ought to be poor in spirit” or “Let us be meek” or “We must hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  It is such a temptation when Jesus says something to react by doing an action, changing behavior, transforming our lives.  The beatitudes or blessings are not something we can earn— they are not a spiritual merit badge to be earned or a higher level of spiritual awareness to achieve— they are a pure gift.  

They also give us an insight into the nature of God and God’s preferential treatment of the poor, the least, the last and the lost.  Which further shows how much more difficult to hear and receive a blessing than to attempt to achieve one.[1]

You may have heard these translated happy instead of blessed.  “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  But that translation diminishes what Jesus was saying.  Happy seems so trite and superficial.  We have also turned these beatitudes into platitudes, pithy little sayings, like a self-help guide for spiritual happiness.  As if we can all go home and clear out our closets and our bank accounts and sit in the corner and cry and that will give us spiritual happiness and contentment. I wish it was that easy.  But it isn’t and the beatitudes don’t work like that. 

Instead of seeing these saying of Jesus (the beatitudes) as challenges to live up to or spiritual merit badges to earn.  The beatitudes are not commandments that we must obey.  It does not say, “Blessed are those who become a certain way”, or “You should strive to be a certain way.”  The beatitudes are statements about the dichotomy between the values of the world and the values of God.  While we place high value on success, achievement, winning and triumph instead Jesus is pointing out that God has a very different perspective.  Diametrically opposed from ours!

This is Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and it comes at the beginning of his ministry.  He has just finished calling his first disciples.  He has just started going out in the countryside curing disease, teaching and preaching in the synagogues.  Of course, when you start healing every disease and illness you get a following, which is what happened to Jesus.  People were naturally flocking to see him and to touch him and to be healed by him.   Jesus has their attention.  His followers are listening to his teaching and following his lead.  You can almost imagine the people listening, feeling pretty good at this point.  They had just left their difficult jobs of fishing and were with this exciting teacher, who did some amazing things, miracles, curing people, water into wine.  Who wouldn’t want to be with this guy?   But then he starts preaching about what God’s kingdom is really like.   You can imagine the disciples cutting eyes at each other, whispering to themselves, “What is he saying?   I didn’t sign up for this progressive, socialist, propaganda!  I am not following him because I want to be poor and meek and mourn.  I want a better life not a loser life.  I want happiness and peace and joy.  I wish he would shut up!  He is going off script, messing things up.  We had something good started here.” 

But Jesus is fully aware of what he is saying.  He is the son of God and he knows the very mind of God and he knows how God works.  He is here to tell people how God sees the people of the world.  It is almost as if Jesus is lifting the veil, showing what God is really like and who is important to God.[2]  

In God’s world, the ones who truly experience God’s kingdom are not those viewed as successful in our worldly terms.  Rather:

  • God’s kingdom is known and experienced by those who are poor – not just financially, but also in ‘spirit’, in themselves, in their humanity, in their lack of dignity and lack of compassion from the rest of the world. They may not have two cents to rub together, they may be ignored and marginalized. Blessed are they.
  • God’s comforting presence is felt by those who know true grief, who lament not just for themselves and their own loss, but for the world’s loss of compassion, grace, love and respect for life. Blessed are they.
  • Those who reject coercion and force and violence but seek to engage the world with gentleness. Blessed are they.
  • Those who long for justice and work for it, those who stand up for what is right in God’s eyes, who give themselves to bringing this justice to reality. Blessed are they.
  • Those who respond to others with compassion instead of demanding an eye for eye, those who extend grace to others rather than hold onto grace so tightly as if there is not enough to go around. Blessed are they.
  • Those who don’t spend their time using language of “us” and “them”, those who view all people as God’s children, those who work for peace and reconciliation even though it seems like a pipe dream. Blessed are they.[3] 

According to Jesus this is God’s way of looking at the world, of blessing the world, and it is very different than our ways.  God blesses people that the world does not.  God simply shows favor to all kinds of people, especially the vulnerable, the least, the last and the lost.  Those that we often place at the bottom of the ladder of people, God moves to the top.

If we stop and think about it, this is the way that God has worked from the very beginning.  God called and blessed people like David, who was the runt, the little one of the family;  He called Jeremiah who thought he couldn’t speak for God because he was only a boy; throughout the Gospel God called and blessed stutterers who couldn’t speak eloquently, sinful people who had done awful things, shady women shunned by society.  And then God showed up in the form of Jesus born to a poor teenage girl in a barn out in the middle of nowhere land.  And that son of God did not ride into a town on a chariot but rode into town on a donkey with poor people lining the streets and placing their worn-out coats along the road for his path.  That son of God ended up not with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns hanging from a cross.  The perfect image of defeat and suffering death.  But that image was transformed into victory and forgiveness and life.  God regularly shows up in mercy and blessing just where we would least expect God to be, with the poor rather than the rich, with those who are mourning rather than those who are celebrating, with the meek and the peacemakers rather than the victorious and the strong.  It is the way God works; it is how God has always worked.  It is the way God sees the world and the way God invites us to see the world. If we only have ears to hear.

[1] Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock, Matthew 5:1-12, Hearing God’s Blessing, The Christian Century, Living by the Word, 1990.

[2] Some of these ideas and thoughts taken from Sacredise website, John van de Laar, Jan. 24, 2011

[3] Some of these ideas and thoughts taken from Sacredise website, John van de Laar, Jan. 24, 2011

Sermon from January 26 2020

Questioning Faith

January 19, 2020

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

John 1:29-42

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:29-42, NRSV)

Let us pray: O God, you spoke your word and revealed your good news in Jesus, the Christ. Fill all creation with that word again, so that by proclaiming your joyful promises to all nations and singing of your glorious hope to all peoples, we may become one living body, your incarnate presence on the earth. Amen.

I must recommend a movie, the Two Popes.  Now, not being Catholic I had my own preconceived notions about the Catholic Church and the popes. This movie enlightened me, it educated me, and it moved me to tears.  It is an excellent movie that portrays the joys and triumphs, struggles and victories of faith in a real and honest way. It stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis.  It was affirming to me to see even in the highest office, the Pope, there is doubt, searching, and hope as well as struggle.  The movie reminded me of other a wonderful saying of a clergy colleague of mine from my former church in Tennessee. He was the Priest at St. Williams Catholic Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee, His name is Father Dick Driscoll. We were part of a weekly lectionary study and he often said that the task of a preacher is like that of one beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.

In our case the bread is the bread of life.  In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus offers an invitation, a non-threating, non-binding invitation to come and see for yourself what he is all about.

This time of year in the Confirmation Class the students begin to lose some of their shyness, and they ask more bold questions, about God, about faith and about life.  We call this big bowl questions and as a pastor this ritual can feel like stump the preacher night, but it is also one of the greatest experiences to have young people express their faith and offer their own questions.

This year’s class has been particularly interested in height. Like, how tall was Jesus? How tall is God? How big is God? They are also interested in age. How old is the Bible? How old is God? How long ago did Jesus live? If the Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples, then why do we use other prayers?

Then we get into the theodicy questions. Meaning, why do bad things happen? Why does God let bad things happen? Why does God let bad things happen to us? These are just a few of the questions I can share. Others I cannot because they are not safe for church. Then we get to the really deep and profound questions. 

Why out of all the women in Bethlehem did God choose Mary to carry Jesus? Does God know my future? Does God know our choices and our future because we are the ones who believe in him? Will God always forgive us?  What a wonderful and inquisitive group of young people we have in our Confirmation Class.

Now, it would take more time than this sermon to answer each of these questions so I won’t start, except to say that it would be fun to devote an Adult Forum to each of you to ask Big Bowl Questions.  And I would let Nancy answer them…

The focus of this sermon is not the questions per say but the fact that Jesus himself offers an invitation for people to find out for themselves.  That is what I love about these confirmation questions, find out for yourself. God is big enough to take your questions, your doubts, your anger, your hurt, your pain, your lack of faith, your lack of belief, your dislike of organized and institutionalized religion. Instead God is inviting each of us to come and see for ourselves what God and faith and church is all about.

While we spend so much time and energy on the liturgy of worship and the words of statements and Creeds, that is just our merger attempt to explain the unexplainable.  To put into words the mystery of God. It is again as my old Catholic Colleague Father Dick Driscoll used to say, a group of beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.  Where to find sustenance, where to find a higher power, where to find God.

This may seem heretical to many of you, but I am much more concerned that you know God than you can recite the correct Creed or believe the correct Theology. It is my passion and sense of call to ministry that you know God’s love and forgiveness more than if you become the most knowledgeable and best Presbyterian ever.  So, instead, I hope that you hear this invitation loud and clear, come and see God for yourself.  In your language, in your way, in your images and in your time.  We in the Presbyterian and Episcopal traditions tend to shy away from talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  But, honestly that is what this text is all about.  We have to feel it, see it, experience it for ourselves.  Come and See. And it is a bit different with everybody. Because it is personal.

This is one of my favorite passages because, John in John’s way is throwing so much at us.  Theological statements, hyperbole, and utter nonsense and in the midst of this confusion breaks down to three components: A question, a clear statement and an invitation. The question Jesus asks the disciples is “What are you looking for?” Others make a definitive and clear statement, a declaration of faith, “Jesus is the Lamb of God!” Hey, pay attention, this guy is important, watch him, how he lives, how he treats others, how he loves the least, the last and the lost. Followed by Jesus offering them an invitation, “Come and See!”

This is that dreaded word Evangelism at its best an invitation, to check it out. No politics, no judgment, no you have to adhere to these rules, no you have to dress like this or live like that, no money down requirement.  No Obligation to adhere to a core set of beliefs.  Notice that Jesus does not condemn other religions, he does not scare them with eternal damnation and put the fear of hell in them. He does not use a glitzy and gimmicky marketing campaign. A simple declaration of who Jesus is and an invitation to participate in the good news. 

What are we looking for? We come for all kinds of reasons, driven by a multitude of motives – we are sometimes confused and needful, and always aware of the inadequacy of our faith.  Jesus doesn’t demand any of that here.  Jesus says, “Come and see.”  He offers hospitality.  He offers a space for us to come to him so that we may grow, change, mature.  If you want to know Jesus, God, Christ, the way is to follow him.  So, my Big Bowl question is more an invitation, “Won’t you come and see?”

Let us pray:

Sermon from January 12 2020

Sunday After Christmas Sermon


December 29, 2019

First Sunday after Christmas Indian Hill Church Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm 148

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Let us pray: Light of life, you came in flesh, born into human pain and joy, and gave us power to be your children. Grant us faith,0                   Christ, to see your presence among us, so that all of creation may sing new songs of gladness and walk in the way of peace. Amen.

Can’t  we  linger  a  little longer  with  the Christmas cheer?    Can’t we keep the happiness and joy just a little bit longer?


How quickly we have moved from the sweet baby in a manger to the horror of this text, this depressing text about King Herod murdering all the little babies?

I read a commentary on this on this hard Matthew passage that really struck me. It is not all bad to have this text the Sunday after Christmas. He says:

“But perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps we need to be reminded that joy and suffering exist right beside each other. Perhaps we need to be reminded that even as we celebrate, that others grieve, and our celebration is empty unless we also work to create a reason for the least and most vulnerable among us to celebrate. Perhaps it’s good for us to go directly from “Peace on earth and good will to all” to the reality of violence, death and suffering, so we have a better understanding of the Christmas message in the light ofthe pain in our


Madison Avenue and Hollywood portray Christmas as a time of peace and love and happiness. All the Christmas cards and commercials show pictures of happy families sitting around a fire watching snow falling outside. We have dreams of families reuniting and enemies forgiving enemies and children having all their wishes come true. There is nothing wrong with these dreams and yes, sometimes they do come true. But there is much more to the Christmas story than hallmark cards portray.

If you think about it, that first Christmas was not an easy, or a frivolous time.

1 Sacridese on Text this week, Dec. 26, 2010


It was messy and hard and painful. Mary gave birth in a barn with no doctors or nurses and certainly no clean freshly laundered blankets to wrap her bundle o fjoy in. We might prefer to stick with the Gospel of Luke’s version of the Christmas story where the shepherds depart “praising God for all they had seen and heard” and then the very next event recorded by Luke is Joseph talcing Jesus to be circumcised

and being blessed by Simeon. It is a much sweeter story. But while we might prefer

that story, we can’t deny Matthew’s story. For in Matthew there is no visit in the temple, there is only exile and threat and fear.

King Herod was no dummy. He ruled for nearly a generation. He was ruthless. He murdered one of his wives and three of his own sons. So, when he sensed a threat from this new baby boy born in Bethlehem, he knew what he must do to end any threat to his power. Just to make sure he got rid of the correct baby he would kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. IN fact, any baby boy under the age of two would have to die just to be on the safe side.

But an angel, thank goodness for angels, an angel had warned Joseph to flee and to take Mary and the baby and get away. Joseph was a quick learner and he knew to trust the angel when the angel speaks. He had already had one visit from an angel, so his ears are primed to listen and obey. Joseph, being faithful and strong didn’t waste any time. He went to Egypt and stayed there for many years until Herod


has died. It had to be Egypt, because Egypt had so much meaning to Joseph and his people. No doubt Joseph remembered that God had saved his people, the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God had brought hope out ofa hopeless situation. That must have given Joseph hope. It must have sustained Joseph for the journey and the years in Egypt.

And Joseph was right. God did save them. God did bring Joseph and his family back home. They did not stay in exile forever. They went back to Nazareth just as God told them to do.

So why this story at Christmas time? Because it is real life. Sometimes, lots of times, we can’t stay in the joy of holiday spirit. Sometimes peace and goodwill just don’t last.  Sometimes we find ourselves in far off places and lands like Egypt, in exile wondering what went wrong, why me? We make grand plans, but life just does not turn out that way. We lose the job, the stock market crashes, the housing market dries up, the marriage unravels, the child makes choices we would not like them to make, the cancer returns, death comes calling. Sometimes, it seems that the peace and goodwill of Christmas are overshadowed by the violence and wars of the world. People use violence again and again to squash any sort of threats. Just like Herod did. These are the facts of life, even in this joyous Christmas season.


So, we read a text like this, where even Jesus found himself in exile, away from the comforts of home, running for his life. But he had a father and a mother who trusted and believed and put one foot in front of the other and survived.

Matthew’s stocy reminds us that even in this Christmas season we are surrounded by evil and violence and death. The church will not let us hide behind our Christmas cheer. As Christians we do not live in a fantasy world where children have all their dreams come true and there is no suffering and death. We live in a broken world. Even when Jesus was born, the light ofthe world, he was surrounded by violence and death. Ultimately it is the reason for Jesus, to save us from all this. This loving and forgiving God will carry us out of exile back home. This light of the world will save us from the Herods who cannot destroy God’s gift of eternal life.

We might not like this Christmas stocy from Matthew. We might like the angels rejoicing and the shepherds praising and the wise men bearing gifts a lot better, but we might just need this stocy from Matthew even more. For if God was unwilling to come to us in Egypt, in our own exiles, then we would not much want him or need him. If God is really going to save us then we need a God who will come to us wherever we are, whether that be in a stable in Bethlehem or in exile in Egypt. The stocy of Matthew assures us that God does come to us, even in our pain,


perhaps most in our pain and fear. God comes to us and saves us and takes us back home.

Will Willimon, the former dean of Duke Chapel tells the story of one Christmas season having a conversation with one of his students. The boy told him how his girlfriend who he loved dearly had broken up with him right before Christmas and he was devastated. He thought she was the one. The boy said, “If it’s love why does it have to hurt so much? Love ought not to be that way.”

Dean Willimon listened but, in his heart, he was thinking, “Love, real love, is always that way. If there is to be love, there must be risk and if there is risk there is the possibility of pain. If love, God’s love is to come down to us, there is going to be some pain.”2 The good news is that God does come to us, no matter where we are and saves us. It is not always pretty and happy and easy, but in the end, it is real, and it is hopeful.

We need this story. We even need Herod in the story to remind us that Jesus did not enter the world in a pretty Christmas card picture. Jesus entered a world of real pain, of serious problems and brokenness. Jesus came into the world to save the lost, the downtrodden, the hurting.

2 Reverend Will Willimon, 12-27-98

‘ .

Of course, Matthew’s take on Christmas is the perfect prelude to the ending, the end of Jesus’ life. For in the end, Jesus takes on the powers and principalities, the kings and kingdoms and there is pain and violence and death. All in the name of love. All for us. The story that began in a barn ends on a cross. It is not a story of weakness, No. It is a story of strength and love and goodness, that God will come wherever we are and then call us back home. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Unfailing Light

December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 9:2–7

Luke 2:1–14

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

2: 1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see— I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Let us pray: O Holy One, heavenly angels spoke to earthly shepherds and eternity entered time in the child of Bethlehem. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our temporal lives be caught up in the eternal in that same child, that we might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

It has been almost 21 years now and I remember it like it was yesterday.  It was our first Advent and Christmas Eve as parents to be. The waiting for yet unknown Baby Caine to be born. When we first found out that we were going to have a baby, the reading of this story was very different that year and every year since.  Thinking about the wonder of parenthood, the fear, the excitement, the terror of not knowing what to do and Monnie and I were in our early thirties so we were seasoned adults, well as seasoned as one can be. As a seasoned adult I was a long way from my teenage years, as Mary was.

The world was so much different back then…that Advent and Christmas Eve 21 years ago.   No one had heard of the Denver suburb of Columbine, the High School where 12 students and teachers where murdered by their classmates.  The twin towers of the World Trade Center were standing tall and proud, beacons of capitalism and power because September 11, 2001 had not yet become a day of infamy. Where terrorists turned highjacked commercial airliners into weapons of mass destruction and murdered nearly 3000 people and changed our way of life. I remember thinking two weeks after our first child was born as I watched on CNN the horror of Columbine, what kind of world have we brought our child into? It was a dark world that day. 

I wonder if Mary and Joseph wondered what they had done bringing a child into the world?  It was a dark world back then as well.

Tonight, we read Luke’s version on the birth of Jesus.  It is a messier and much less poetic version of the birth of Jesus than say the Gospel of John with its soaring language and poetic verse. Luke is a dose of reality. It’s full of the mundane, the ordinary. For example, Luke tells us, there is a census that requires people to return to their own hometown. The census is related to one of the messiest aspects of human life, taxes. The census “a register of persons liable to taxation.”  Rome wanted a census because they wanted to tax and conscript people.”  So, the roads and the streets of the cities and towns of Palestine are crowded. And here among the teaming masses is Mary, a young, pregnant woman who isn’t married yet. With her is Joseph, the man who shows incredible understanding and faith, given the circumstances. Luke says he stays by her.  It’s complicated and it is messy, but Joseph is all in.[1]   

They make their way to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem and Mary gives birth and must lay her child in a manger among animals. It was typical in that time in humble homes to gather the animals inside for protection from robbers and to provide warmth to those who lived in the house.  It was a messy place.  If you have ever been in a barn or stable where animals are kept you know the smell, and it’s not just of sweet, fresh cut hay.  This on top of the messiness of giving birth. 

It was a dark world back then as well, underlying Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus was his existential wrestling with the power of Roman Empire and how they controlled the people of Israel with great force and fear.

It was a dark world back then as well unless you were a leader in the Roman Empire, then it was all good.  It was the golden age of Caesar Augustus, filled with increasingly oppressive and brutal imperial power.  The Roman legions besieged Jerusalem, burned the temple, and decimated the population, faithful Jewish groups throughout the empire wondered how they would survive in a Roman Empire that wanted to tax them even more and crush their spirits into submission.   First-century hearers would notice the political implications inherent in this acknowledgement of the governor of Syria and the ruler of the Empire.  The census, itself a penetrating symbol of Roman power, serves as a reminder of the subordination required of Israel as a conquered people.  More than an imposed inconvenience, the census signifies the alien rule compromising fidelity to Yahweh.  Joseph and Mary, along with the others who traveled that season were not participants in an inflated economy on a shopping spree. The census accounted for the people’s wealth not for the spending power of their credit limits, but the taxing of persons and property. This return to home bears the weight of tax season, not Black Friday. But Luke the historian is no less Luke the theologian.

We hear the Nativity story differently as parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents.  But births happen by the thousands every day, and each one is special, each one is miraculous, and each probably causes a mother or father to wonder about the miracle that has just taken place in their lives.

What does it mean to raise a child in a world that, according the National Academy of Science, that because of global warming, polar ice caps are melting, costal lands will be flooded, and hurricanes, storms and draughts will be more frequent and much more severe?  What does it mean to raise a child in a world where violence, war, fear and false narratives rule the day?  Where our political leaders care more about keeping their office than making the nation a better place. Where churches are not safe for children because clergy are truly wolves in parading as sheep? It is a dark world.

It was a dark world.  And that is the point.  Luke is making a strong claim that in spite of  the Roman oppression that was affecting the people of that time, despite the false sense of peace that was being promoted by the government, because Luke knew that the real bringer of peace was now present, a living and breathing baby boy.  The light of the world, the light for the world, the light that darkness will not overcome.

This gives me hope. It gives me hope for children, babies born in what seems like a dark world.  It gives me hope for all of us.  Despite what is happening in the world. No matter how dark it might seem. We have light. We have a choice now we can choose to give into the darkness, or we can follow the light. The light that gives hope, the light that never fades, the light that shines bright even in the darkest of nights.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Did you hear that?  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

Christ’s light is always shining in every corner and crevice, in every heart and soul. God towards the light and trust in the God who came to us this night, a babe in a manger.  Amen.

[1] KC Ptomey

Sermon Advent 4A 2019

The Faithfulness of Doubt

December 15, 2019

3rd Sunday of Advent

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm 146:5-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:2-11, NRSV)

Let us pray: Almighty God, you have made us and all things to serve you. Come quickly to save us, so that wars and violence shall end, and your children may live in peace, honoring one another with justice and love;  through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The last time we heard from John the Baptist he was full of what an old football coach used to call “piss and vinegar.” Last week John the Baptist was full of confidence almost to the point of being angry as he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1] And then he went even further to say, “But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”[2] But now we hear a very different John the Baptist…a beaten man full of doubt and uncertainty.

Last week John the Baptist was knee-deep in the Jordan River, baptizing Jesus. But today we find him, sitting alone in jail cell, clearly, he is questioning his confidence and perhaps even his mission and his purpose.

Last week John seemed ready to conquer the world, confident, strong and true but today (some months later, but not too much later) he is in prison. He’s gotten crossways with Herod, and now he’s behind bars.  He’s confused.  He was once so sure about Jesus. Today not so much, as he sends a disciple to go and ask Jesus a poignant, even heartbreaking question: are you really the one who is to come, or should we look for another?

John the Baptist, of course, knew his Hebrew scriptures well.  He knew all that Isaiah had promised regarding the Messiah.  Perhaps you noticed.  I’m sure John noticed.  Jesus had been going all over the place, doing what Isaiah said the Messiah would do: preaching good news to the oppressed, healing the blind and the deaf and the lame.  But John is now in jail.  If Jesus is the Messiah, why hasn’t he, as Isaiah promised, let the prisoners go free, particularly John?’   So, John sends messengers, asking “Are you the one or not?”[3]  Jesus’ answer, as you heard, is, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[4] John’s bound to be confused and not a little disappointed. The one that he thought was the Messiah isn’t doing what he thought the Messiah would do.[5]

I am reading an incredibly difficult book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, it is difficult because it tells the painful stories of the people he represented as their lawyer, many of them are African American, all of them poor and some of them on death row in the deep south.  He writes about trying to keep the convicts and family hopeful while being a realist in their situation.  One family in particular the family of Walter McMillian, who had been on death row for 6 years for a crime he did not commit.  His family said, “They’ve kept him for 6 years. Now it’s time they let him go.  They have to let him go.”  Stephenson responded, “I appreciated her optimism, but I worried, too. We’d been disappointed so often before. “We have to remain hopeful, Minnie.”

“I’ve always told people ‘no lie can live forever,’ and this has always been one big lie.”[6]

He continues, “I wasn’t exactly sure how to manage the family’s expectations. I felt I was supposed to be the cautionary voice that prepared family members for the worst even while I urged them to hope for the best.  It was a task that was growing in complexity as I handled more cases and saw the myriad ways that things could go wrong. But I was developing a maturing recognition of the importance of hopefulness in creating justice.”

Stephenson writes that he has grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who said that “‘hope’ was the one thing that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.  Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure.  But Havel said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather “an orientation of the spirit.” The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”[7]

Having hope is especially difficult this time of year, because of all of the manufactured cheeriness of Christmas seem to make light of the pain and struggles we all face. To make matters worse if we voice them then we are left feeling like a scrooge or bah-humbug because this is the time to be happy and filled with joy.  Which is why this passage is perfect as we have grown impatient in our waiting in this Season of Advent.  It is ironic, I guess that this Sunday we light the “candle of joy.”  When we hear of John the Baptist’s doubt and it allows the reality of doubt to enter our journey to Bethlehem as we anticipate the birth of the Christ child.  The joy and happiness of this season is not unfounded because we know what the Baby in the manger symbolizes; the gift, of his life, death and resurrection promises new and eternal life…just not yet!  So, the Season of Advent is real life, because we wait, often times impatiently for a new heaven and a new earth.  The fact that we hear the doubts of John the Baptist is a bit of fresh air in this overhyped joy and happiness of the holiday season.  By sharing his doubts, we can be reassured and reminded that doubt is not the opposite of faith instead the Christian life is one full of ups and downs of doubts and questions, of anger at God and disbelief in the words and themes of faith.

          Our faith, the Christian faith follows the bible.  Which is full of stories of people who doubted.  Men and women who questioned, who questioned God.  Who needed hope.   In the end we all need to be reminded that God in Jesus did not become one of us as the victorious conqueror that we wished he would.  Rather, Jesus, as the Gospel of Matthew confesses, Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us. Instead of eliminating all of our troubles and removing all of our obstacles he instead goes with us through them.  Doubts, questions, and disbelief are welcome here because God is big enough to take them and yet small enough to care.

You may not even notice it, but a lot of what we do in worship is calculated, calculated to provoke a sense of hope.  The music, the lighting of an additional candle each Sunday on the Advent wreath, and the way in which we begin slowly with our sanctuary decorations, adding a little something each week; these are the means of stimulating our expectation and building our anticipation.  It’s a way of encouraging us to have hope.  There is a subtlety to the reading from Isaiah this morning that provides a kick-start to faith and to hope. All is not right, right now.  There are those of us who mourn during what seems like a joyous and happy season. John the Baptist shows us that we don’t have to pretend that we are fine, and everything is ok.  You see, his doubt in a very strange way is good news because it opens the door for us to be real and honest and true.  God is in the ongoing process of redeeming and reconciling the universe to Godself and, one day, not only will the blind see, the deaf hear and the poor have good news proclaimed to them, but God will set all the prisoners free and give light to those who sit in darkness. Amen! Come, Lord, quickly![8]

[1] Matthew 3:2, NRSV

[2] Matthew 3:7, NRSV

[3] Matthew 11:4, NRSV

[4] Matthew 11:5, NRSV

[5] Reverend K. C. Ptomey, A Homily on Matthew 11:2-11, The Westminster Pulpit Sermons Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church 3900 West End Avenue Nashville, Tennessee 37205-1899 for the Third Sunday of Advent December 12, 2004.

[6] Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy”, A story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson @2014 Spiegel & Grau a division of Random House, New York LLC. Page 219.

[7] Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy”, A story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson @2014 Spiegel & Grau a division of Random House, New York LLC. Page 219.

[8] Reverend Cory Driver, Lectionary blog: When Jesus disappoints. Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11 for the Third Sunday of Advent Dec. 15, 2019. Posted December 9, 2019.