I wrote this hymn poem when I couldn't find any hymns in our hymnal that went with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. I sang this song to introduce our lay witness in worship, Peggy Schlosser.
I could have written that sermon for you this morning, but I didn't. I The Spirit must have wanted me to write a poem instead, because that's what got written. It's a poem about how I once ran away and how God found me anyway. Now seminary may seem like a strange place to run from God, but at the time it felt as if the Spirit were driving me into a wilderness called seminary. In those years I was preparing for ministry, I'd never been so hungry. My faith had never been so tested. Let me tell you about that time. I hope you'll pardon the rhyme.
We have all we need. We're ready, and the Word for today is the story of Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness. But it doesn't start out with the devil. Notice that it starts out with the Spirit of God. It is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the wilderness. In the Gospel of Mark, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. So here's the first lesson: if you find yourself in a spiritual wasteland, don't think that God has nothing to do with your being there. The question to ask is this: "What does God want me to learn while I'm here?"
Jesus knew they would do this. That's why he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." Jesus knew that he couldn't go home because in a real sense, Nazareth was no longer his home. The mental wall that had secured their identity had become a wall of bigotry. And it was bigotry that was holding the people on both sides of the wall in captivity. As far as Jesus could see, breaching that wall was the only way to bring them liberty.
So you see, salvation has never been only about what's going on between the individual soul and God. Salvation has always included what's going on with society and God. John Wesley said that Christianity is essentially a social religion. To make it a solitary one is to destroy it. ["Sermon on the Mount, IV" Part I.1.] That's why Wesley worked so hard to save souls and, at the same time, to end slavery. That's why he preached out of doors and collected blankets for prisoners of war. That's why the Methodist Church, always known for its emphasis on personal salvation, was the first church to write a Social Creed (1908). Because Jesus deliberately chose this text for what we might call his inaugural address, because he chose this passage in Isaiah to define his ministry, we Methodists use it to define ours.
"When you pass through waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you." [Is 43:2] I wasn't so sure about that when my co-worker with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks announced that he was going to perform a baptism in the Yellowstone River early the next morning. Never mind the frigid water. Like John the Baptist, he was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire and warm things right up.
Listening in the car, I was dumbfounded. I had never considered that there might be a better way to eat a banana. When I got home, I tried it. The radio was right. Well, who would've guessed that turning a banana upside down could turn my whole world upside down! As far as bananas are concerned, I am born anew. And I am reminded that there are always new things to say about new life.
If I know you, you will bring far better gifts than the wise guys did. Instead of gold, you'll bring your faith in God...Instead of frankincense, you'll bring your commitment to make a difference...Instead of myrrh, an ointment that was used in rituals of death, you will bring love, the balm of life..So, forget the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Bring us your three best gifts: your faith, your hope, and your love. Then God's light will surely arise upon us, and God's glory will appear over us.
Have you ever wanted to rewrite a Bible story? Some stories are harder to read than others. Take the one in Luke often referred to as "the slaughter of the innocents." This is the dark side of the Christmas story when Herod finds out that the magi are not going to reveal the new king's location. I've always wished this story had a different ending, so I've written one. In light of the recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I was thinking that how we respond in love and faithfulness can write new and more grace-filled endings to the most horrific of tragedies. At the end of the service, we blessed 30 prayer shawls to go to the United Methodist Church in Newtown for distribution to first responders who are having difficulty dealing with the trauma.
So, what do we say to them? How can we bring them the Good News of Christmas? How can we assure strangers and friends that life can begin again? Preachers, teachers, counselors: we all rely on words. But sometimes words aren't enough. Yes, in the beginning was the Word, but we're not here because of the Word made words! We are here because of the Word made flesh. We worship Jesus Christ. And that's where you and I come in. We are the Body of Christ, so you be his kind hands. I'll be his sure feet. You be his clear eyes. I'll be his sharp ears. You be his loving arms. I'll be his strong back. Together, we'll get our loved ones to Bethlehem so that their world and ours can begin again.