Sermon Text from 07.05.2020

Scripture text: Luke 1

          Rise up in order to Raise Up. Long time ago, there was a town in California called Monterey, and for years this coastal fishing town was a pelican’s paradise. As the fishermen cleaned their fish, they would fling the scraps to the pelicans. The birds grew fat, lazy and contented. Eventually fishing practices changed, and the fishermen found ways to utilize the scraps of their catch – so there were no longer any snacks for the pelicans. What’s strange is that when the food went away, the pelicans made no effort to fish for themselves. They just waited around, hoping food would show up again. They grew gaunt and thin, many starved to death. They didn’t know how to take care of themselves any more. They had forgotten how to fish for themselves. They solved the problem by importing new pelicans from the south, birds that knew how to get their own food. They were placed among their starving cousins, and the newcomers immediately began catching fish. Before long the hungry pelicans followed suit, and the famine was ended. They just needed a better example to follow. Rise up, in order to raise up.

          What you may not realize is that July is the start of a new year for me. Pastor’s in our tradition begin in their new churches the first of July. So my “years” go from July to July. Starting today, I have been here for two full years. So in my ministry, I’ve created a tradition called “Vision Sunday.” On the anniversary of my first Sunday, we roll out a vision statement for the upcoming year. Last year it was “Eyes Up, Flushing” – which I think was such a useful vision that really helped us stay on track in some truly chaotic times. This year, our vision statement is “Rise Up To Raise Up” – and that will be the lens, or the framework, for us as we move through this upcoming year. On top of vision Sunday, I’m very excited that today we are beginning a brand new sermon series called Journey With Jesus, Part I: Origin Stories. Now here’s why I’m so excited – this is the most ambitious project I have ever preached through. Last year we preached through the entire book of Romans, and I don’t know about you – but I learned a ton of stuff, and I definitely grew in my connection to God. This year, through the Journey With Jesus sermon series, we are going to read through the entire gospel of Luke. We are, as a church, going to walk with Jesus from his birth all the way to the resurrection. We’ll take breaks throughout the year to explore other parts of the bible. But today is the start of an epic journey. Now, before we get into the text, I have a challenge for you church. Just like last year with the Romans series – moving one chapter a week, a whole chapter every week, is too fast. There is so much in each chapter – for example, Luke chapter 1 is 80 verses long. And I don’t have the lung capacity to preach that long. So every week we will summarize certain parts, and focus in on other parts. So my challenge to you, every week we are preaching in the Journey With Jesus Series, I need you to read the chapter at home. We’ll cover as much as we can on Sundays, but for maximum impact on your life, to really Journey with Jesus – read the chapter in pieces throughout the week. Most weeks it’s like 5-6 verses a day will get the job done. So here’s the deal I’m offering – I promise not to read 80 verses and preach on every verse if you promise to read it for yourself, continue the journey throughout the week. It’s a fair deal, right?

          And so the journey begins, [read v.1-4]. Luke is giving us a framework for this project. Jesus came into this world, and made a few waves. It was a big deal, and people were writing down an account of his life. This book, the gospel of Luke is the story of Jesus’ life. Luke investigated carefully and collected eye witness accounts to create this book. Luke is actually regarded as the historian, his gospel is so thorough and complete. One other little tidbit before we move on – verse three mentions that Luke is writing this book to a guy named Theophilus. But here’s the cool part – the name Theophilus means “person who loves God,” so scholars are not sure if Luke was writing to an actual guy named “Theophilus” or if he was writing an account of Jesus to anyone who loves God. Verse four says, [read it again]. This is the project in front of us.

          Now here’s the part where I summarize. Verses 5-25, the next big chunk of the chapter is the story of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad. Long story short, he was a priest, who was working one day when an angel shows up, and says “your wife is going to have a baby, his name will be John, he’s going to tell people about Jesus.” Zechariah asks, “wait a minute, how is that possible? My wife is really old, we have no babies” The angel says, “I’m offended you would doubt me, and so now I’m going to strike you mute until the baby is born.” So that’s fun. Zechariah’s wife is Elizabeth. Way down in verse 57, we get the end of the story. Baby is born, Elizabeth names him John, Zechariah agrees with his wife – and the moment he agrees with his wife, then he’s allowed to talk again. It kinda freaked out the neighbors, but there was no doubt – the Holy Spirit was involved with the birth of this baby. So the beginning of the book is not about Jesus, but instead it’s about John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin.

          The next big chunk is verse 26-38, and this story is a little better known. The angel visits Mary and tells her she’s going to get pregnant with Jesus. Now, just like Zechariah, Mary asks the same question, “wait a minute, how is this possible – I’m a virgin.” But this time the angel’s all nice and sweet and just explains it to her. The Holy Spirit’s going to come on you, and the power of God works miracles and the baby will be holy, the son of God. And Mary’s all, “cool, good deal.” Well, what she actually says is [read v.38]. Now, that’s really nice – but I feel like the angel was definitely picking on Zechariah. Mary asks a question and the angel just answers it. Zechariah asks a question and the angel strikes him mute. It’s hilarious, but it does seem a little mean.

          Anyways, after Mary gets pregnant, the two pregnant ladies do what pregnant ladies do – they congregate. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, they have this really amazing moment. Mary shows up, shouts out a greeting, and when Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, her baby leaps in her womb. Listen to this, [read v.41-44]. Little baby john the Baptist, well I suppose they didn’t call him “john the Baptist” yet, little baby John hears her voice and leaps with joy. And let’s not let verse 43 slip away from us. It says, “and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” If you’ve ever hung out with a pregnant lady when the baby moves way too much – I think an accurate reading would be “to what do I owe this honor,” but also “why is this happening to me?” Baby is way too excited.

          And so after all that good stuff, we get to verse 46, Mary’s song of praise. It’s funny, the passage doesn’t say anything about music or singing, but it’s such a beautiful sentiment of praise – it’s almost like her soul is singing. She is so happy in God’s grace. I think you can capture its main point with two ideas. First, God is holy and then second, look at what a holy God does. [Read v.46-51]. The mighty one has done great things for me. God is holy, and then [read v.52-56]. God fills the hungry, lifts the lowly and sends the rich away empty. I feel like, if we take the gospel of Jesus seriously, we would be forced to reject the worldly dream of being wealthy. Like, he really never says anything nice about rich people. He has a lot of warnings for rich people. Which to be honest, ties in with the overall theme of “Rise up to Raise Up” God is holy, and in his holiness he spends time lifting up the lowly. If we have been blessed in our lives with wealth or any other blessing, to follow the example of Christ is to use our blessings to raise up other people. We rise, in order to raise up other people. Rise up to Raise Up. And one last thing before we move on. It says Mary stayed with her for about 3 months, she visited with Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. 3 plus 6 is nine months, and that’s when the baby timer usually goes off. Mary probably stayed with Elizabeth until the birth of John, and then she headed back home.  

          Now already we have covered a lot, but the final section of chapter one, the last thing that happens is Zechariah’s prophecy. John the Baptist is born, Elizabeth names him, Zechariah is allowed to speak again – and he gives a prophecy at the end of the chapter. [read v.68-70]. God has raised up a mighty savior. The first bit of the prophecy is all about Jesus. Basically he reminds everybody this is the part where God fulfills all those prophecies from way back when. Jesus is the answer to all the questions the Old Testament left us asking. God has raised up a savior. Then Zechariah shifts gears to talk about his son, John. [read v.76-77]. Johnny boy you are going to pave the way for Jesus – by giving knowledge of salvation, so – basically, TELLING people about salvation. Telling people that they can be saved, by the forgiveness of their sins. That’s John’s purpose, John’s calling. To let people know: you can be saved if your sins are forgiveness. And then my favorite line in the entire chapter, [read v.78-79]. The dawn from on high will break upon us. Jesus is coming! For two reasons 1.) Be a light in our darkness and 2.) guide our feet into the way of peace. That’s why Jesus is coming – to light up the darkness of your life, and then guide you from that moment on. Jesus saves, by lighting up our darkness and then guiding us. First we know Christ, then we follow Christ.

          The good news this morning is that God raised up a savior. Another way to say it is that God gives light and guides feet. From the very beginning God knew that all the pieces of this story would come together. From the first page of this book we’ve got angels and prophecies, the holy Spirit is alive and active before Jesus was even born. God foretold all the pieces of this story that would come together. Jesus is the fulfillment of every promise Israel has been given. First comes the light. I love the way the prophecy puts it, [read v.78]. God shines light into the darkness. And that light can be blinding, and confusing. Zechariah gets the incredible news that his wife will finally have the son she has always wanted – and his response is confusion. Like someone who is in the darkness, and then they are suddenly surrounded by light – what? What are you talking about? Mary gets news that she will be the mother of the messiah, and her response is confusion. Squinting and blinking a lot. Questioning – how? How does this light work? How does it make sense in a world full of darkness? And I know that this is the history from thousands of years ago, but it’s also for us here today. When you are away from God, you are living in darkness. No matter how great your life might be by the world’s standards, away from God you are in darkness. And the world will never satisfy. But God shines light into your darkness. And it can be confusing, dazzling, sometimes we squint when that light comes into our darkness.

First comes the light, then comes the guidance. The light is there to guide our feet into the way of peace. God raised up a savior, and John the Baptist came first to let people know, what did it say? “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” The light is where we need to be, but it’s not an easy path to walk. We need help, we need guidance. Jesus was sent to guide our feet into the way of peace. So, first we get to know Christ. We let Jesus into our lives, we let that light shine into the darkness, and begin to transform our lives. We know Christ. Then we follow Christ. We pick up our cross and follow him wherever he leads us. We take this beautiful gift of light we have been given, and we use it to light up the darkness in other people’s lives. God raised up a savior – to give light, and to guide feet. And so we respond by giving light and guiding feet. We rise up, we step into the light, in order to raise up the people around us.

          Rise up to raise up. That’s the practical application right there. Rise up to raise up. There’s two parts. First we rise. Our God raised up a savior, so that we can rise. Accept the salvation through forgiveness of your sins. See, so much of the time we when we talk about salvation, we imagine the gift of grace and eternity with God, and there’s a place for that – and our imagination fills with thoughts of heaven. But there is another side to that conversation, another option for eternity. Another place, that nobody ever seems to want to talk about. It’s so strange in our culture we focus so strongly on justice – we want justice, but the reality of justice is that we don’t deserve heaven. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and because of our sins – true justice, if that’s what we really want, demands that we do not deserve heaven, we deserve that other place. The one that nobody wants to talk about. Sometimes I do this thing, where I say, “How many of you have made a mistake? How many of you have sinned in your life?” And everybody raises their hands and we all kind of chuckle. And it’s like a cute thing we do to remember that we are all broken people in need of a good God. But what we’re doing when we raise our hands, and we say, “yes, I’ve sinned. Yes I am a sinner.” We are admitting that we have a nametag waiting for us in hell. Because that’s where sinners go, that’s how justice works. That’s the “darkness” I’m talking about – it’s not a metaphor. Now, I know – I’ve got friends in the ministry who don’t believe in an actual hell. Personally I do, bible seems pretty clear – but for some people they talk about it more like it’s the evils of this world. Hell is being far away from God in this life, before you die. And I don’t usually argue with them very much, because that works to. I say “darkness” but what I mean is time away from the presence of God, whether that’s right now, or for eternity. I’ll be honest with you guys, I don’t like talking about hell. But I don’t ever want you to forget how beautiful the light is to those who are living in darkness. Remember your sins, recognize your need for God, understand your place far away from God, and the darkness you are in. And then receive the light. Rise up in God’s light. Jesus came to save you. To give you salvation through the forgiveness of your sins. Your sins that deserve death. Your sins that deserve hell, in this life and the next. Your sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ your savior. You are given the ability to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of your brokenness, to be reborn as a child of God. Where hell has no more claim on your life. Hear it again, [read v.78-79]. Accept salvation. The first step is to rise.

          The second step, after you have received the light. After the light of God has washed the darkness from your world, after you have risen – the second step is to raise up others. To follow Christ, to follow his example, is to do to others what he did for you. Raise them up, like Jesus raised you up out of the darkness. Raise them up, be a light into their life. Guide their feet, like Jesus guides your feet. You know, this past week I had the chance to go visit the North End Soup Kitchen for the first time ever. It’s a really simple drive. Just Pierson Road going east. But boy, you definitely know when you’ve shifted from Flushing into Flint. Sometimes when I drive through the rougher areas I think about what it would take to turn the community around. What can we do? How do we bring Flint back from the decline it has experienced? And then I think back to my time in Detroit. Years ago, I actually interviewed to be a pastor in one of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit. You could get a house for like 3 grand, the trash collectors wouldn’t even go into that part town. There was just this lot where people would put their trash. And there was a story from that neighborhood. A married couple who made it their goal to fix that neighborhood. They bought a house that used to be a crack den or a brothel – I forget, and they renovated it. And then they started with their street. They would clean up their yard, and the lot across the street. Looting was really common. People would break into vacant houses and take the copper pipes to sell. So they started protecting the houses on their street. Even empty houses. All they really did was care. Mow this yard. Paint this curb. Fix this swing set. They cared. They invested in their community. And that investment was contagious. More and more neighbors started taking pride in their community. They didn’t make fun of their town, they were proud of their town. They started working together. Put in a community garden, fixed the street lights themselves, built a really cute playground. Watched out for the children. And when you drive through this neighborhood, you cross this one street and you can see where their influence begins. It was like crossing into another world. A radius of positive influence coming from this one house. I wonder if We could be something like that for Genesee County. Some people are worried about the poverty of Flint, climbing up Pierson road towards Flushing. But real change begins with just one person. One couple deciding to care. Deciding to be a light that pushes back against the darkness and despair of the world. First we rise, then we raise up others.

          This is the beginning of our journey with Jesus. Already it’s an epic tale and he hasn’t even been born yet. All the pieces foretold by God generations before they happen – come together to bring light into our darkness. As Mary teaches us, God is holy, so look at what a holy God does. And so I’ll leave you with this, May you be convicted of your sin and your status away from God. May you accept salvation through the forgiveness of your sins. May you rise. But don’t stop there. May you rise up in order to raise up others. To give light to all those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen.

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