Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

I Chose You

I Chose You!

Nehemiah was a Hebrew during the time of the Babylonian exile and had an interesting job - he was a food taster for the king. It was his job to taste all the food before the king ate so that the king knew the food was safe. After tasting the food, Nehemiah would then serve the King his food. So Nehemiah would be in contact with the king every meal during the day - and Nehemiah and the King developed a kind of relationship; they got to know one another through that daily contact.
The King, Artaxerxes, was the king of Babylon where the Hebrew people had been living as slaves for the past 80 years. Some of the Hebrews were slaves as we would traditionally think of slaves, working for farms and building buildings and such. But some of the Hebrews had been brought into the palace of the King and worked there. If you remember the story of Daniel - of lions den fame - he was one of the Hebrews brought in to work for the king in the palace as was
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - the ones who survived the fiery furnace. This is how Nehemiah became a worker in the palace and his job as the food taster for the king - the official title was ‘cup bearer’.
After about 80 years of slavery, King Cyrus who was king before Artaxerxes, had allowed the former king of Israel, Zerubbabel, to lead some of the Hebrews back to their homeland of Palestine - what we would call Israel today. When they reached their homeland, what they found was devastating. Everything was gone. Their houses were gone, the city of Jerusalem was in complete ruins, and their beloved Temple was just a pile of rubble. The Hebrews were just overwhelmed by finding everything in ruins.
Instead of pushing up their sleeves and getting to work putting it all back together, they fell into a depression and did nothing. They just threw up their hands in defeat. But eventually they did move back to where their towns and villages had been and slowly began to rebuild their own homes. They settled into getting their lives back in order and eventually realized that even though they now had places to live, God did not.
We need to stop for a second and remember that the Hebrew people believed that God lived not in heaven, but in his ‘apartment’ in the temple. So if there was no temple, there was no way for God to be with them - and there was no way for them to worship since true worship also took place in the temple in the presence of God.
By now, the King of Babylon had allowed the priest Ezra to bring another group of Hebrews back to their homeland. Ezra then directed the rebuilding of the Temple.
Now all that was left to do was to secure the city of Jerusalem. All the cities during this time period had walls around them to protect them from foreign invaders. Jerusalem had not had the walls restored yet and because of that the Hebrews in Jerusalem, where the Temple was located, were being tormented by foreign military. The people had rebuilt their homes, had rebuilt the Temple but now just didn’t have the resolve to finish what needed done by putting up the city walls. If they didn’t do it soon, Jerusalem and the Temple were going to be ravaged again.
Nehemiah, back in Babylon, gets word of this and it makes him very sad. He knows that if something isn’t done soon, then his people would be in trouble once again. With this news weighing heavy on his heart, Nehemiah carries the meal to the King. Artaxerxes looks at Nehemiah and immediately knows that something is wrong. “What’s wrong Nehemiah?” Artaxerxes asks. “What is bothering you?” Nehemiah tells the King about the walls in Jerusalem and his concern about his people. Nehemiah says that he has prayed about it and really feels God has called him to go back to Jerusalem and supervise the building of the wall. Then Nehemiah looks at the king and says, “Will you let me go?” The king is reluctant because he has developed a relationship with Nehemiah, Nehemiah is doing a good job and the King trusts him. But seeing the real desire in Nehemiah’s face, Artaxerxes says that Nehemiah can go and take with him more of the Hebrews still living in Babylon.

Nehemiah goes back to Jerusalem and does exactly what God had asked him to do - get the walls rebuilt around the city.
The passage we read earlier from the book of Nehemiah explains exactly how these walls get built. The homes are built, the temple is built and foreign armies are coming to attack and Nehemiah knows that unless they do something creative not only are the walls not going to be built, but once again God’s people will be destroyed by the invading armies. So Nehemiah develops a plan.
First he assembles the Hebrews and tells them “Don’t be afraid of our enemies. Remember we belong to God and our God is great and our God will always fight for us!.” Then Nehemiah divides all the workers into 2 groups. The first group would work on the wall and the 2nd group were armed with spears and shields and bows. While the workers worked on the wall, the others stood around the outside of the wall and guarded it from those who would try to invade. And working together, the wall was built and Jerusalem once again was protected and God’s people could work and worship without fear. And the workers declared, “Our God will work for us!”
Another interesting section we find in the book of Nehemiah, in chapter 3 is a list of all the names of the people who worked on the wall! This section makes an important point - Nehemiah is careful to emphasize that
everyone worked together - the leaders, the clergy, the residents of the city and even those who lived outside the city walls. Everyone working together in the face of difficulty got the walls built and life began to come back to order once again.
The Apostle Paul ran into the same problems as he traveled establishing new communities fo faith. For people who were so use to living in a society where their voice didn’t mean much; for people living in the Roman provinces where everything they did was regulated and directed by others, the idea of each person contributing the the work and worship of God was a difficult concept. But Paul wanted the people to understand that to God, everyone is valued; everyone is important; and everyone is needed to make the church work as God desires.
Corinthians 12 is a favorite chapter to read to help us understand the value of each individual in Christ’s church. The first part of the chapter starts out talking about how each person within the church has received the gift of the Holy Spirit who lives inside of you. And this Spirit empowers you with abilities - scripture refers to these abilities as gifts or talents - and Paul emphasizes that each and every person has a gift to offer to the whole body. Everybody. Everybody….. and then Paul challenges us by saying that that the use of our abilities is crucial for the good of the body.
We are the body of Christ - and Paul says - just like our physical bodies we need each part to work efficiently. We need our ears and eyes and our stomachs and our fingers and our knees and our intestines. Without all these parts doing what they do, as we all well know, our bodies don’t function so well when one of those parts isn’t doing what it does. Our knee quit working and we have to limp along and we can’t do the things we’d like to do or our head hurts so we just feel bad all over.
The point being - all those parts, all of us as the body of the Christ - have a purpose and a place and all of us are needed if the body of Christ, this body of Christ, is going to be able to fulfill what God has called us as the church to do.
Listen to Jesus’ words from John 15 - “You didn’t choose me. I chose you and appointed you…”
Remember those days in grade school where you had to choose up sides and you stood there hoping you’d be chosen - well you have. God has chosen you to be the church of Jesus Christ. You are here because God felt you were needed, you were important, you were vital and you are ‘on the team’. And without you, without each of you, God’s team is not complete.
It took everyone working together to build that wall around Jerusalem; it took everyone working together to get the church established during the first century and it takes everyone working together to be faithful to God’s call to be Christ’s church today.
Amen!

The Story of Namaan

The Story of Naaman

During this part of the church year our lectionary calls us to look at the events in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last Sunday was Baptism of the Lord Sunday where we remembered Jesus’ ‘ordination’ into the role he will play as the Messiah - where we saw the dove come down and infuse him with the Holy Spirit as the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.” This act begins the story of Jesus’ life as he obediently follows where God leads him, to reveal for us the nature of God; to teach us the way to live; to offer our salvation on the cross and to deliver eternal life through the resurrection.
After the time of his sending by God, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days to consider what this new focus of his life is all about. He goes to spend time with God and with himself; a time of prayer and discernment. It is a time to sort of just take a deep breath before he begins what he knows is going to be a tough journey. And then at the end of this 40 day period when he is tired and hungry he is tempted by Satan with all those things that seem so tempting in our life. He was tempted with power, with recognition, with arrogance. Notice he is not tempted by the things in life that we associate with sin - drinking, drugs, sexual sin, theft, dishonesty….. No he was tempted with the things that are even harder to resist - a sense of pride, a sense of self reliance, a sense of God’s care even when we are disobedient to him. It is a time when Jesus is most vulnerable. And Jesus makes it. He doesn’t give in! Can you imagine what that felt like. The humanity in Jesus must have felt pretty good about himself - Wow! I did it!
So he heads home. On the way his ministry begins in full force. He teaches, he heals people. He is invited into synagogues to teach and everyone thinks he is great. On this great success he decides to head home to share this great moment with people he knows! Word precedes him about how successful he has been and how great his message and his healing and he is invited to the hometown synagogue to teach for worship….. He is handed a scroll and reads a prophecy about the coming Messiah and then says, “Look! This is me! I am the Messiah read about in the scriptures. I have come to God’s chosen people to help them turn back to God.”
Well, the people then began to remember who this was - “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? We remember him as a little boy. Who does he think he is? Why is he telling us we need to change?” So they run him out of town. Certainly didn’t go as Jesus expected……
And so it is in our lives. Things certainly don’t go as we expect them to. We think we have a handle on things. We thing we understand what is going on and then it truly rains on our parade and we find ourselves spinning out of control and we don’t know what happened.
In Jesus’ message to the people of his home town he mentioned the Syrian Namaan. And Namaan is another good example of someone for whom things don’t quite go as he thought they would.
Namaan is a Syrian. The time period of this story is back in the days of God’s people as they lived under a series of good kings and bad kings - and the bad kings far outnumbered the good kings. God raised up prophets to help refocus the kings and to help the people know the true word of God. One of these prophets was the named Elisha.
Historically what was going on was the nation of Syria was continually attacking Israel, especially the border towns, and in doing so would plunder the small villages and would kill the men and capture the women and children and take them back to Syria as slaves. In the ‘God can bring something good out of any situation’ category, was a young Hebrew slave girl that had been captured by a mighty warrior of Syria and given to his wife. The mighty warrior was Namaan.
But as big and important as Namaan was, Namaan had contracted leprosy. This was devastating to him because he was powerful and important and things like that just didn’t happen to people like him. The little Hebrew servant girl who saw Namaan’s turmoil was bold enough to step up and say, “There is a prophet of God in Israel who can cure your leprosy.” Now this had to be a very

difficult choice for Namaan. The Syrian’s looked down on the Hebrews as being ‘less than’, not being ‘good enough’ and for Namaan to stoop to going to a Hebrew for healing was almost out of the question. But Namaan was desperate and he was willing to try anything.
He had his entourage headed off to Israel in search of the prophet. And they found him. His name was Elisha. Namaan had brought with him many of his soldiers and advisors and servants. He had brought huge wealth with him because he was sure this prophet was going to charge a great deal to heal Namaan since Namaan was sure his reputation as a great and powerful man had preceded his visit and great and powerful men were able to pay large amounts for healing and Namaan assumed Elisha would charge him great amounts.
He had one of his servants knock on Elisha’s door and Elisha’s servant comes to the door and says, “Elisha says to go wash in the Jordan 7 times and you will be healed.”
Namaan is outraged! Who does this prophet think he is to send some lowly servant to deliver a message instead of coming to me himself.” Namaan declares, “Surely the prophet himself would come out and perform rituals and call on the name of his God in order to heal me.” Namaan was incensed that the prophet hadn’t performed some great act; hadn’t made a great show; hadn’t performed some visual display for someone as important as Namaan!
Namaan begins to move away saying “If he isn’t willing to come out and approach me himself then I’m leaving. Wash in the Jordan river 7 times; how dumb that is. I could have done that with better rivers and clearer water back in Syria.” Off he begins to ride when one of his servants is willing to speak up and say, “Wait! We traveled all this way and you are going to let your ego get in the way of your healing? We are here. We can at least try what the prophet said. What will it hurt?”
It took some doing, but Namaan finally agreed and he and his entourage went down to the Jordan. Namaan went in the water and dipped himself in 7 times and when he came out of the water of course he was healed. He couldn’t believe it. Something so easy and simple.
He goes back to Elisha and this time Elisha does talk to him. Namaan offers Elisha great wealth and Elisha won’t take it - which again doesn’t go as Namaan had thought it would and Namaan and his entourage return home vowing to worship the Hebrew God.
Nothing went as Namaan had expected. Namaan expected some great wondrous ceremony, this great waving of hands and calling on God and the presence of angels and something grand. He expected to have to pay greatly for this huge gesture and the presence of this famous prophet, and it didn’t cost him a thing…
Just like Jesus and Namaan had this expectations of how things would go, God had other plans. The events did not turn out as expected - yet Jesus’ ministry continued, Naaman was healed.
We too often have these great expectations of how things should be. We plan and we consider how we would see the circumstances play out and when they don’t we are confused, perplexed, we wonder what God is thinking? We are sure that we had the path cleared in front of us and we are going on as we see fit and then that path takes a sharp curve and we are lost.
But we need to stop when we see that curve and not see it as devastation, but see it as opportunity. Jesus’ had the opportunity to understand that it wasn’t the right time for him to reveal who he was and it certainly wasn’t the right place but God set him back on the right path and his work and his ministry continued. Namaan had high expectations of wonder and grandeur and God gave him the opportunity to see that around that curve may not be something huge, but something easy and simple and exactly what God knows it should be.
Open yourselves to what God knows is right for you.

Amen!

It's Epiphany!

It’s Epiphany!

Today is Epiphany Sunday - a day for us to think about God’s direction to a group of scientists to travel and confirm the birth of the Christ child. The word ‘epiphany’, in the church sense, refers to an appearance of a deity to a worshipper. This day is significant because we recognize that God reveals the nature of Jesus, as the ‘king’, to a group of Gentiles. Throughout Jesus ministry we see this happen over and over. God is trying to teach us that Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, did not come just for his own people, the Jews, but for everyone. And here, in the very beginning of the story of Jesus God is using these fellas from far away to reveal that Jesus is truly the coming King.
In the church, Epiphany Sunday is the Sunday that falls after the first of January but In many cultures, Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas - as in the famous song ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. In many cultures, unlike us who put all our presents under the Christmas tree to open on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, they give presents each day from Dec 25 until Jan 6 - one present for each of the 12 days
of Christmas. But for us in the Western Church, Epiphany is the Sunday commemorated as the day to remember the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus - a visit which in reality has big implications in our understanding the purpose of the coming of God in Jesus
Christ.
A couple of important points about this visit if you follow closely the biblical account of the story of the Wise Men: First - the Wise Men did not come to the stable to visit the baby Jesus as we portray in all of our nativity sets. We are clearly told that the Magi visit Jesus in a house. We are also told that they visited the ‘boy’ Jesus - the Greek word for a young boy not a baby. With all their sources and calculations, theologians figure the Wise Men show up to see Jesus about 2 years after he was born. The other technically we have to bust is that we don’t know how many wise men there are. There could be 2 or 20. The only reason we traditionally talk about 3 wise men is that there were 3 gifts. They also weren’t kings - but a combination of priest and scientist. They were proficient in the science of astrology (not the astrology as in our ‘signs’ we read each day to see what will happen) - they studied the stars for patterns and changes and movements
which they believed were the way in which gods revealed themselves to people. These Magi were also experts in studying other religions and tried to work out the prophecies in all the major religions of that time.
They lived in the area of Babylon and remember the Jews were held captive in Bablyon. While the Jews were captives, one of the things that happened was that the Jewish scribes assembled their writings into what we would know as the Old Testament. So the Magi had access to the Jewish writings and all the prophecies included in those writings. So when they see this new star appear in the sky and they remember the Jewish prophecies about a star announcing the arrival of the King of the Jews, they decided they needed to go to the land of the Jews - to Palestine - and check this out. Any king who rates a star should be investigated!
Accounts of events in the Bible are recorded not only to teach us the history of our faith; to help us see how God has worked in and through people, but also to teach us something about how we are live as God’s people.
The Magi represent for us God’s directive to be seekers and learners. They had apparently been searching the heavens for years for signs of something unique and significant occurring in their world. They were open to new wisdom and truth - more than this - they searched for it. They were not simply content to get along with that which they already knew. So, when they saw a new star in the heavens, they sensed in their hearts that it was a sign from a god.
Jesus later will tell us that if we seek, we will find, if we knock, the door shall be opened to us, if we ask, we will receive. But how often do we actually seek for wisdom? For new truth? For guidance? For more information about God and Christ and what is actually recorded in scripture?
Think of assembling all those new toys and tools that appeared this Christmas. How many people actually looked at the directions before beginning to assemble them? How many tried to put something together relying on the knowledge they already had - only to find that it was not good enough? In order to finally get whatever it was put together, you had to resort to the instructions!
The wise men gained their wisdom because they were seekers - they were looking for new things, new
insights, new signs. They read their manuals; they researched their documents; they searched the heavens for


signs and wonders. And so should we. We have a wealth of instruction in our scriptures and we are told by God we need to read and learn and study what is there. 2 Timothy 3:16 - “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” So like these Magi, we need to use the resource we have.
Once these Magi figured out that the prophecies led them to Jerusalem, they immediately began to pack to head off on what was going to be a very long and difficult journey. The journey would take a year and would go through treacherous and dangerous territory - which they knew about when they headed out on the journey. The wise men had faith that this journey was going to lead them to something important and didn't hesitate to begin the journey - even knowing the difficulties they would have to experience and the sacrifices they would have to make.
Faith by definition involves the idea of making a journey - of venturing forth - of risking one's very self in a new activity. The living God cannot be found by proxy. We can’t come to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ through someone else. The magi had to travel from a foreign land. They did not know where the star would lead them, how long it would take, or what the end result would be for them. They only knew that it was important for them to follow that star to wherever it lead. It was a personal quest
and the result was an opportunity to visit the one who would be king of kings and Lord of Lords.
This may well be the most important truth for us in the Epiphany story. A story of faith with Jesus has to be a personal story, a personal quest, a journey of faith. It is not enough to know all kinds of facts about Jesus. One must encounter the wonder of God's grace and then make a personal decision to commit their lives to living with Christ. One must decide to learn the way Christ has taught us to live and then do so. No one else can do that for us. Faith is not inherited from someone else- nor can it come from simply knowing what others have said about it. Faith is like the difference between having read about how to make a cake and actually making one. One can know all there is to know
about cooking, one may well have memorized the recipe for the cake that he or she wants to make - but until one actually gets out the ingredients and mixes them together and puts the results in the oven and then has faith that when the timer on the oven dings, out will come a cake! . Faith is acting like the wise men - stepping out into
the unknown knowing that Jesus will be there no matter how long and hard the journey.
The wise men went off on their journey - knowing that the prophecy told them that the star would lead them to a king. They knew what a king was like - the same picture we would have of a king - crowns and royal robes; palaces and servants and wealth. Then they end up in Bethlehem at the home of a poor carpenter.There are no costly treasures in the house, no purple robes, no gold rings, nothing in fact to show that they are in the presence of person destined to be a great king. Only the star stood overhead to indicate that anything special at all was going on. And they accept this. Although all the
outward signs are telling them that they are in the wrong place, they accept that single sign - the Star, the sign of God that they have been following for so long.
So many of us have a hard time accepting what God has given in the form that he gives it. Because we are waiting for something spectacular from God - we look for great miracles, instant healings, signs and wonders. We may pray to God for a special blessing and miss what the blessing really is. We have this idea fixed in our minds that God does not appear to us in the ordinary aspects of our life. We do not
expect God to show up while we are at work, or doing dishes at the kitchen sink or just relaxing in front of the TV. The Magi found what they were looking for in a humble home in a small insignificant town. We have a hard time considering that God's answers to our questions can be found in a 3000 year old book, or from something that happens during an ordinary day, or a dream we have had during a long and troubled night that is in fact, a message from God.
The wisdom of the wise men is simply this
- they sought wisdom,
- they were willing to journey in faith to personally discover what God was doing,
- they accepted what they found - even though it clearly was not what they expected - and believed in it.
Simple stuff really - but wisdom normally is simple stuff.
Simple - but when used - as the wisemen used it, it leads us closer to God. Amen!