Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shepherd Soul

Luke 2:15  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

The shepherds are an indispensable part of any nativity scene, as they represent the first people outside the Holy Family to know that the Christ has just come into the world.  The angel's appearance to them has a great deal of symbolism.  Not only do the shepherds foretell the life of The Good Shepherd, but the birth has happened in David's city, and he was, of course, a shepherd himself.  But above these things, by appearing to these lowly and lonely members of an agrarian society, the angel shows that the Messiah has come for all people, no matter their status or role.

That universality of the announcement to the shepherds should not be lost on us.  Even though we may feel far removed from them today the message still applies.  The poet George Herbert understood this.  Herbert, a saintly Anglican priest with Welsh origins who died in 1633 at age 39, left behind many well-crafted verses on various subjects, most especially religious ones.  In his poem, "Christmas," Herbert writes:
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
     Of thoughts, and words, and deeds,
The pasture is thy word: the streams thy grace
     Enriching all the place.
What a beautiful way to see one's soul, as a shepherd, just as those shepherds of Bethlehem.  And as a shepherd, our soul feeds our thoughts, words, and deeds, for better or for ill.  But through the help of Christ, through the presence of his Word, we are better able to care for our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep," Jesus tells his followers in John 10.  And again, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep."  Not only did Jesus lay his life down for the sheep, he left heaven in the first place for them, appearing to us in Bethlehem on that first Christmas.  That in itself was a sacrifice.  And just as the angels made clear to the shepherds in the fields that special night, so too does Jesus make clear to us -- he came for all people: "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."

On this day after Christmas, as we sort through the mess and reheat the leftovers, let's not forget the lesson of the shepherds who first saw that child.  And like George Herbert, may our souls be shepherds, too.  Good shepherds, inspired by the best shepherd of them all. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Walking on Water

[Adapted from last Sunday's sanctuary re-dedication sermon.]

Matthew 14:28-29  "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."  "Come," he said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

There have been many symbols of Christianity and of the Church over the centuries.  We are all familiar with the cross, of course.  And many people are aware of the fish as a symbol of the faith. In Mark 1 Jesus tells his first disciples, who were fishermen, that he will make them fishers of men.  This and other references to fish in the New Testament led to the fish being an early symbol of Christianity, and one that has certainly made a resurgence in modern times.

Another important early symbol is less seen today -- the boat.  Have you ever considered the church as a boat?  This symbol has many scriptural bases.  Moses and his family and the animals were saved on a boat.  The early disciples, as fishermen, worked with boats.  And it was from a boat that the Apostles saw Jesus miraculously calm a storm and also walk on water.

Logo of the World Council of Churches
But the symbolism goes deeper than that.  A boat is a place of safety, even on turbulent waters.  It is a place of stability when everything around you is unstable.  A boat can take you almost anywhere you want to go.  And wherever that might be, you can still keep fishing.

Think of the sea's waves as the turbulence of sin and of a broken world.  The boat -- the church -- is a refuge from that turbulence.  It is a refuge but it is not a hiding place.  Quite the contrary, we are encouraged to sail our boat out across those frightening waters in search of others who are floundering, needing to be saved.

The boat would not be carrying us if Jesus had not first entered our world.  He broke into history first in Bethlehem, in that stable, over two millennia ago, but he continues to reenter our lives even still.  He comes to us again and again, knocking at the door, seeking entry, and he asks only one thing of us -- to follow him. 

When Jesus approached Simon and Andrew, and James and John, he invited them to follow him, and they did so.  They had no way of knowing at that moment just what following Jesus would truly mean, but they could be assured then, as every day after, that he would always be there to protect them.  Likewise, when Jesus appears, in Matthew 14, walking on the water toward his disciples in a boat, he calls upon them not to have fear.  He was their source of all security.  And so when Peter asks Jesus to call him out upon the waters, Jesus' answer is immediate -- "Come!"

We normally focus on what comes next.  In a panic, Peter begins to sink, and Jesus has to grab him to save him, and gently chastises his lack of faith.  However, pondering that passage, one has to ask what deeper meaning there might be here.  Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus perform a miracle just to show off.  His miracles have meaning and symbolism, if not immediate comfort and healing.  So why has Jesus chosen to walk on water?  Why does he allow Peter to do the same? 

I believe Jesus is teaching Peter, and us, a lesson.  He teaches here that through true faith we can walk across the waves of sin and brokenness, and Jesus will sustain and lead us.  That's what walking on water truly means.  It is more than the ability to perform a physical miracle.  Instead of sinking into sin and despair, you can rise above it.  You can take the safety and security of your boat, the church, into places even the boat itself cannot go.  Because Jesus is always there to lift you up, to sustain you and protect you.

The church is your boat.  With Jesus piloting us, this boat can bring you through every turbulent storm you may face.  It can ride the waves day after day.  But the blessings don't end there.  Because yes, the church is your boat, but when you walk out the doors, even you can walk on water.