February 11, 2018
Back in 1971 David Bowie had a signature song, Changes. “I watch the ripples change their size, but never leave the stream...of warm impermanence and so the days float through my eyes. Ch-ch-ch-changes.... Pretty soon you may get older....Time may change me, but I can't trace time.” Black Sabbath a year later had a minor hit also named Changes; a song of regret. “Wish I could go back and change [those] years.” Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin'”. Year after year, songs about the changes we see in our lives or in our world. Taylor Swift and Christina Aquilara each had a song named Change. Modern artists recognize that change is inevitable.
Our Scripture lessons have changes.
In our gospel lesson, it is the appearance of Jesus that is changed. It is a story we hear every year. And rather than focusing on this change in appearance, I want to consider how this experience may have changed the way the disciples saw Jesus. Six days earlier, Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him, who did they think he was. Then he turned it around and asked them and what they thought and Peter gave his well-known declaration, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And so we'd say he already had it figured out. But five minutes later, when Jesus explained that being the Messiah meant suffering and dying, Peter rebuked Jesus. Again, in a well-known exchange, Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Again and again we see how difficult it was for the disciples to change their view of how the Messiah ought to be and to act. A couple of examples from the night Jesus was betrayed: In John we are told that Jesus washed the disciples feet. He did this as an example, that love means serving; that we need to guard against false pride. Peter, however, felt it beneath the Lord's dignity to wash his feet. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.'” Peter saw the Messiah only as Lorxdand master, which he is. But Jesus wanted to teach us that the greatest thing we can do as his disciples is to love one another; love by serving, by putting others' needs above ours.
A little later in the evening, Jesus is promising that there is more to a disciple's reward than what is found in this world. “In my Father's house are many mansions....I go and prepare a place for you...and you know the way to the place where I am going.” Remember, these twelve men had been with Jesus for almost his whole ministry on earth. They had seen and heard powerful demonstrations that he was the Messiah; that all they need do was follow him. Thomas spoke up this time, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” And Jesus gives the answer we are all familiar with even if we didn't know its setting, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” Follow Jesus and you will be following the way of truth leading to eternal life.
One more, this one may seem less obvious. Philip this time, questioned Jesus, wondering how he can know the Father whom he has never seen. Jesus answered him (Perhaps with exasperation), “Have I been with you all this time Philip, and you still do not know me. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”
See, I'm afraid that the Transfiguration or even the miracles and the teachings really did change the disciples. But, they did change...eventually. After Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection, they changed plenty. Then the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost and they were on fire for the Lord. Their thoughts changed, their actions changed, their motivation changed. No longer was it all about their needs and their goals and their desires; they lived to follow Jesus.
I wrote myself a note this week, and this seems a good time to share it. “Faith means following God into the unknown—not led by our feelings but by God's word.” We are on a journey of faith. And the destination is found by getting more and more of God's word into our journey. And I talked to several of you this week who were working their way through God's word on God's word, Psalm 119.
I want to select a few verses we read that speak to God's word leading us in this journey of faith. We want to understand God's word, we want to obey God's law, we want to follow God's leading. Verses 5 and 6 say this, “I pray that my ways may become firmly established so that I can obey your laws. Then I will never feel ashamed when I study all your commandments.” Verse 10, “With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments.” The psalmist writes of the importance of knowing God's word, God's law in verse 11, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” This next one I like because it goes along with our focus on scripture, on hungering and thirsting for the things of God, “Your decrees are my delight, they are my counselors.” verse 24. Verse 40 emphasizes our desire while reminding us that is is not our righteousness that saves us, but God's. “See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.” I could go on all morning, but one more example and we are only 1/3 of the way through the psalm. Verse 50 is about finding comfort and hope in the promises in God's word. “This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life.” God's word gives us many gifts. The psalm lists dozens and dozens. And I hope it wasn't too overwhelming of an assignment. But God's word is such a basic necessity for our spiritual lives, and this psalm extols its virtues in so many ways, I hope we get that understanding in our hearts.
“Faith means following God into the unknown—not led by our feelings but by God's word.” None of us knows what changes tomorrow may bring. We plan. We save. We work. And often, in reflecting back, we see God's leading. Last Saturday was the 9th anniversary of my commissioning here. A time to look back and reflect. And what my reflection led to was to consider some of the changes we've seen. First and foremost in my mind are the saints we have lost. Each of us just need glance around the sanctuary and see the empty pews where friends and family sat. Fellow travelers on the journey of faith who have gone to their reward. Changes that are hard to face, but changes we face with hope because we trust God's word.
I think of the changes in outreach we have attempted. We tried the neighborhood potluck...two people came. We sent out special Christmas and Easter postcards inviting our neighbors to worship with us. Nothing. We reached out to WINGS, and thanks to the faithful work of Bev and Rosie in particular but others who have gone, it has become a mission that connects us to youth who have hit a snare on their path. We've tried changing the times and topics for bible study...and we get the same 6 or so people. The CCC helped change our focus to safety for our community's children. We were able to bring together some 300 people for the Patty Wetterling event. Some changes work, some don't, but most all of them are at least slightly uncomfortable. Julie shared a little exercise at our leadership day to help demonstrate how we are creature of habits, creatures of the comfortable and how it can be hard to change. I think she called it “crazy hands”. Will you come demonstrate?
There is a change for today that will be a bit uncomfortable, you may have noticed it already. We have our wonderful blessing prayer we share; with the permission of the worship committee, we are changing to a new one. It may be familiar to some of you, it may feel strange after 9 plus years with the same benediction... but change can be good, it can trigger a greater understanding of what we are saying and doing, it can challenge us to understand why we do what we do or say what we say.
And then there are the changes that change our lives. A change in financial status. The need to move to assisted living. Giving up driving privileges. Health care needs. Family problems. How do we make decisions that are life-changing? Back to our psalm, “Through Your precepts I get understanding; Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (105-106) “Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts; (128) In all our decisions, all our changes, we want to turn to God for guidance. And God will guide our paths. Not that the answer is always clear. They usually are not and big decisions require time in prayer and in conversation with the God who invites us to share our decisions with Him. It may mean getting advice from someone older, wiser and more experienced. Or younger with certain gifts of expertise. Sometimes we find our answer directly in God's word, but mostly it is gentle nudging to follow God's way.
I want to conclude with an unusually vivid example of God's leading. Not that even in this example was it clear where God was leading. If you remember from last week's sermon, I told of Hien Pham. He was the prisoner in Vietnam who collected and cleaned the pages of the bible the officers used as toilet paper so he could read the scriptures and reconnect with God.
Eventually, Hien was released from prison. But he made it his mission to escape the country; he sought freedom in the West. He constructed a boat for the escape of himself and 53 others. Things were going well, the secret had been kept and they were a few days from sailing to freedom. Then one afternoon, four Vietcong knocked on Hien's door and said they had heard of his escape. He denied it, and they left.
He was relieved, but also wondered if he'd truly been trusting in God by lying about his plans. In his prayers, he promised God that if he was put to such a test again, he would tell the truth. Then mere hours before actually getting on the boat and leaving, those four Vietcong returned with the same question. This time Hien told them the truth. Amazingly, the four men leaned forward and in hushed tones, asked if they could escape with him.
To make a long story short, they made their escape. But once out in that ocean, they were engulfed in a violent storm. It looked bleak indeed. In Hien's words, “if it were not for the sailing ability of those four Vietcong, we would not have made it.” They arrived safely and Hien did make it to America.
We are guided by God's word. It seems clear that we need to be investing time with God in order to hear where God leads. The emphasis in the scriptures for honesty led Hien to admit his plans and because he did, the whole party of 58 made it to safety. Without his relationship to God and God's word, that decision would not have been made and they would have likely died on the seas.
Listen, read, pray and be ready for changes. If we are not moving forward in our faith journey, our faith is in danger of dying as well. May we share the psalmist's prayer at the end of 119, “I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight. Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.” Amen.
Open My Eyes That I May See 324 PH Psalm 119:18--Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.