Who Can Forgive Sins?

Date: February 19, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Who Can Forgive Sins? is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Mark 2:1-12. It is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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Who Can Forgive Sins?

Sermon Text: Mark 2:1-12

Four people decided to carry a friend to Jesus who was teaching and healing in Capernaum. The man had been paralyzed and was unable to take himself to Jesus. So his friends decided to carry him to Jesus. The text does not tell us what had caused the paralysis. Reading between the lines, we know that many things can cause paralysis, limit our mobility, inhibit our personal, social, economic, and spiritual autonomy.

A young husband of our church fell down the steps of his apartment and was paralyzed from the neck down. I was introduced to the 5th floor of our local hospital that was filled with people who were being kept alive by machines, paralyzed by one thing or another.  It was heart breaking for him and his wife. He barely clung to life. He could not speak, but his eyes said it all. It was deeply disturbing for me.  Soon he passed away.

A few years later I was in the same hospital for a surgery. I was experiencing difficulty in getting out of bed to walk. It was painful. My nurse reminded me of the patients on the 5th floor who would never get out of bed.  She said to me, “You better get up and walk.”  “Wow!”  I dragged myself up, and before I knew it was walking the halls and ready to go home.”

One of my friends was riding his horse in Anaheim Hills. He was flying down a horse trail with a group of guys in the early evening when he struck a branch beside the trail with him head.  He survived, but would be in a battery powered wheel chair the rest of his life.  I had walked through many life experiences with him. I had officiated at his wedding.  I have a picture in my home office that he gave me signing his marriage license on December 31, 1973. He disappeared from my life for a number of years.  One day he rolled into my office in his wheel chair, told me of his discovery of Jesus, and asked to be baptized. I baptized him when we were worshiping in the Fellowship Hall. His new wife gave me a picture of his baptism. It is in my church office. Not too long after that he suddenly died. I did his memorial service. I would have done anything, carried him anywhere to seek healing. His prayers were answered. The Lord took him home. He was liberated, set free, forgiven of his sins.

My Dad went blind four years before he died. He wanted nothing more than to see again. He tried every remedy. We carried him to every hospital promising hope for restored vision, from UCLA to USC. The larger family was mobilized. My aunt had desired nothing more than to carry my Dad to Jesus, and she did. He confessed his sins and accepted Jesus. Without her and her compassionate determination to make sure his needs were served I do not know what we would have done. Sometimes it takes a large family, many friends, a congregation, to carry us in our brokenness. When my aunt died I called her son, my cousin, and we wept on the phone for a long time. I could not speak. I needed to be comforted. Our memories needed healed. My cousin wept also. We had grown up together in good and bad times.

I do not know what any of us would do without friends, family, neighbors, who remember us and show up to help us. Throughout my parents final years I often felt paralyzed by my own limited time, space, and financial resources. Thank God that many surrounded us; even the government when my Mom had exhausted every resource she had. It took machines and people to move her from her bed to her wheel chair. It was so painful to watch.

This week, did you see the picture of the Syrian boy who had his legs blown off by barrel bombs from the Syrian Air Force? He was heard crying out for his Pa Pa to pick him up and carry him.

That cry frames all of human history. It frames my life.

These few personal stories are partially what this text is about. We could all add our own stories, struggles, and times of physical, emotional, and spiritual paralysis through which we have been carried by people who cared.  They were the arms, the legs, the eyes, the ears, the brains, and the compassion of God who found us and carried us into Jesus’ presence to give to us that which we were  unable to provide for ourselves.

Dr. Mark Roberts, former pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church and Scholar in Residence of Laity Lodge, Kerville Texas, led our Presbytery Pastor’s Retreat this week. He shared his own story of watching his Dad die of cancer over four years. There was much suffering.  Mark said he almost lost his faith. If it had not been for the members of their church bringing food to his family during those years, he would have drifted into atheism. The church members and friends carried his family to Jesus and would not let them go. In sharing his story he gave to us all the courage to reflect upon the many times we have all been carried to Jesus in the arms of  those who have cared.

When Jesus saw the paralyzed man before him, he surprised everyone with what he said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes, the good Presbyterians, questioned in their hearts, “Who does this fellow think he is. He is blaspheming God. Only God can forgive sins.”

When Jesus perceived their thoughts he said,

“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’ ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ –he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’   Immediately he took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

Jesus was not saying that sin was responsible for the man’s paralysis. That was the common explanation for human suffering in Jesus’ time.  If something bad happened to a righteous person it was the result of that person’s secret sin. This was the argument of Job’s friends to explain Job’s losses and sufferings. But that was not what Jesus was suggesting. To be sure, he knew that the paralyzed man was part of the brokenness of creation and history. Like all of us, we have fallen into spiritual bondage that claims us, limits us, and fills us with physical, emotional, and spiritual anxiety, fear, and despair. We are all trapped and need to be carried to Jesus in hopes of liberation from all that would destroy and imprison us.

The Gospel writers want to bear witness to how God is related to our human condition and slavery to the powers of sin and death. They know that we live in enemy occupied territory into which there has been a divine invasion for the sake of setting us free from the dominion of all that has afflicted and enslaved us.

The Gospels bear witness to how God has determined to carry us, to forgive us, to free us from all that oppresses and enslaves us. The Lord sends his people, his servants to anoint us, to feed us, to nurture us, to lift us up in the arms of compassion inspired by the love of Jesus.

The entire biblical story witnessed to the power and compassion of God. The Prophet Isaiah asked,

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Is. 40:28-31.

When the Prophet Hosea spoke to faithless Israel he witnessed to the God who carries his people into saving grace:

“It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” Hosea 11

And the Lord demonstrated his carrying compassion by human arms and legs, with human hearts of mercy.

In Jesus the Word became flesh. He moved into our neighborhoods through the hearts of other humans for the sake of carrying us into the joy of faith, hope, and love.

Even if we are not aware of this great truth, nevertheless, we have been and are being carried to Jesus who is present in this holy, beautiful space.

Last Sunday, February 12, 2017, David Brooks preached at the Washington National Gothic Cathedral in D.C. You can watch it on YouTube. He spoke of the importance of the beauty of that Gothic building. He said we build buildings and they build us. As he spoke I thought of LPC.

Brooks said that in a world of moral relativity that is now so powerless to heal itself that our nation’s Capital needs a building that is beautiful and whose symbols of Word, Sacrament, and Saints call us to the God of Beauty whom we have come to know by faith in Jesus.  He said that he had often come into the Cathedral to see beauty and to become centered.

A few years ago, he shared that his life was in chaos and he was in deep anguish and despair over a loved one. He came to the surrounding park and sat under the tree that for him was a holy space. The surprise was that his fiancé  came at the same time and found him under the tree in deep depression and sadness. She comforted him. She led him in a prayer that he said was the most authentic prayer he had ever prayed. They walked into the small chapel where the presence of God was experienced in that small space. Ann, his fiancé, carried him into the presence of the God of peace worshiped in that space.

Mark’s Gospel wants us to know that the one to whom the four people carried the paralyzed man was the Son of Man, Jesus, who had the authority both to forgive sins and to speak words of healing love. Soon the paralyzed one stood up, picked up his bed, and walked away a person made whole.

This morning the people of God carry us all to the Table of our Lord. They carry us to the Lord of forgiving grace. They place upon our heads the anointing oil of blessing.  This is the one who promised that he would die and be raised again for the sake of healing humanity. May God give us courage to be a place and a people in this South County to bring others to Jesus!

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Wonderful News

Date: February 12, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Wonderful News is a podcast of the sermon and portions of the worship service at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Matthew 5:1-12, The Beatitudes.

It is the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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Wonderful News.  The crowds gathered wherever Jesus was present. People with many kinds of afflictions, diseases, or spiritual maladies either came to him or were brought to him.  In his presence, under the authority and power of his Word, many were healed and made whole.  Soon his fame spread from Galilee, to the Ten Cities, to Jerusalem, to Judea, and from beyond the Jordan River.

When Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was as if the true king had arrived and successfully established his reign. He found a place to sit down, and his disciples came to him.  Soon a multitude of people came to the place and Jesus began to teach them. The teaching that emerged from his mouth was what came to be identified as the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew recorded the teaching in his Gospel, chapters 5 to 7. By the end of chapter 7, the listeners were astounded at his authority, his clarity, and the mystery of life in the kingdom of heaven.

As I have read and reflected upon this sermon over many years, I have found myself as part of the crowd, sitting, listening, and seeking to understand what he was saying. This May, it will be my 6th time to sit with a group in the park-like environment of the Mount of the Beatitudes and to listen to Jesus’ famous words that have inspired and moved many of his followers to this day.

There one sits on the hillside overlooking the blue lake of Galilee. There is a Franciscan Hostel at the top of the hill.  Many of the important events in the life of Jesus occurred nearby.  The beauty inspires silence and prayer.  One knows that Jesus walked those hills, prayed, and taught the people whom he loved. They gathered to listen and to seek the reality of the kingdom of heaven.  It was a place of hope and healing.

The central word that began each of the beatitudes was the word “Blessed”.  That Greek word may be translated as “Happy”.  N.T. Wright translated it as “Wonderful News”.

“Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.

Wonderful news for the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.

Wonderful news for the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.

Wonderful news for people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.

Wonderful news for the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.

Wonderful news for the pure in heart! You will see God.

Wonderful news for the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.

Wonderful news for people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.”  N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, page 34.

We live in a generation that is preoccupied by the News. News is non-stop.  We absorb news 24/7.  It comes to us in newspapers, in television news reports, in Breaking News, by means of social media.  On my iPhone News is prepared just for me in special reports.  We consumers of news argue about Real News versus Fake News. We speak of “real facts” but also of “alternative facts”. We do not trust the bearers of news. We think of news sources as having special interests behind them, with an axe to grind, with financial demands, with political ideology, as advocates for one party or another, oftentimes personality driven. Anything but the truth!  We listen with skeptical and cynical ears. If one listens to the News from a source outside of our country a different perspective is heard than through an American lens.

When Walter Cronkite delivered the evening news on CBS he was one of the most respected persons in American culture. His delivery and reputation was shaped over several decades as a messenger who got it right. Some proposed that he run for President of the U.S. People trusted him and welcomed him nightly into their homes. When he signed off on the CBS Evening News, his tag line was: “And that’s the way it is.” I will never forget watching him when he reported on the death of President Kennedy.  He sat in front of the camera, behind the news desk, with white shirt and tie, with tears falling from his eyes. He removed his dark rimed glasses from his face and bowed his head in grief.  Some images become branded in the memories of our hearts.

He was a man who carried gravitas. He spoke with authority and we trusted his reports about NASA’s efforts to go to the moon. We celebrated at the wonder and joy of Neil Armstrong taking that step to the surface of the moon. We listened with sorrow as he reported on the Vietnam War.  Many of us grew up listening to Walter. He helped teach us the facts and truths of the world. He was not Jesus.  But he had many of the characteristics of Jesus, qualities of character that we long to see once again in our leaders.

Jesus brought “wonderful news” to those who followed him. It was not that he was a source of nightly news.  Rather he carried in his own character the truth and love of the kingdom of heaven about which he taught.  He not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk.  He was God’s humble suffering Servant Son.

Jesus delivered the wonderful news that the kingdom of heaven would belong to the poor in spirit.

He was himself the model of what it meant to be poor in spirit. The Apostle Paul said it this way. He wrote to the Corinthians:

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” 2 Cor. 8:9

Or, in the Philippian letter:

“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Phil. 2:6-8

When the people heard Jesus’s “Wonderful News” they could trust his promise because he was one of them. He lived among the poor and broken. He had seen poverty up close and personal.  His was a life of humble servant hood from beginning to end.

Who are the poor in spirit? They are the persons who know they cannot live without the presence of the grace and love of God in their hearts.

At every step of the way Jesus was humbly surrendered to serving the needs of the poor, the wounded, the marginalized. He was the personal presence of the reign of God, the God who had stooped low into human fallenness for the sake of rescuing a needy humanity..

This was the Wonderful News of God in Christ who was fully human and who had come to reconcile us to the Father and to one another. He came as our brother to lift us up and to restore our humanity.  This was Wonderful News.  The Messenger of this news had integrity, the integrity and character of the God of love and truth.

Anyone who gets close to Jesus begins to have his character, to share his gravitas, to be transformed in knowing that they need a power greater than themselves to be restored to sanity.

It was Wonderful News that those who mourned or grieved would be comforted.

Jesus experienced the suffering of God as a result of a rebellious creation. The Father of the Prodigal had lost his son to the far country and grieved. The shepherd had lost one of his precious sheep and mourned. The woman had lost her precious coin and was pained.  Jesus would grieve the loss of Judas, one of the 12 who betrayed him. Jesus would weep over the death of his friend Lazarus. He would weep over the City of Jerusalem because it did not know the day of its visitation or the things that made for peace.

The Wonderful News was that the God of Comfort had become incarnate in Jesus for the sake of comforting each one of us who have lost. The Comforter has come near.  He is present with us and will not allow us to weep alone.

Kenneth Bailey, a Presbyterian missionary scholar, spent 60 years teaching N.T. in the Middle East. In his book, JESUS THROUGH MIDDLE EASTERN EYES, he shared that he had recently attended the memorial service for a dear saint who had passed on.  During the service, there was an open mike and people shared the many ways that the man had touched their lives.  The hearts of all those present were comforted with tears and laughter as they remembered.  The Holy Spirit brought blessing to all those who were in attendance.

How often we have had the same experience as we remembered the blessings imparted by loved ones now in the presence of God. We have shared in the midst of tears and laughter and found ourselves lifted up in hope.  This was and is the fulfillment of the Wonderful News of Jesus in the Beatitude.

WONDERFUL NEWS for the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Jesus was the meek. In Matthew 11 Jesus issued the invitation:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Mt. 11:28-30

The promise of Psalm 37 was that the meek would inherit the land. The land was the holy land.  But beyond that, the land was the earth. It was not just one people or individual who would inherit the earth. It was not the rich and the powerful, the high born, the politically and economically well-placed. No!  The inheritors of the earth would be the gentle and kind, the humble in heart, the marginalized, those who had been left out and suffered injustice.

WONDERFUL NEWS for those who hungered and thirsted for the justice of God. They would be filled.

WONDERFUL NEWS for the pure in heart, for they will see God.

WONDERFUL NEWS for the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

The peace of the God of peace was at Jesus’s heart. He came not just to end violence, but to restore God’s original harmony between God and God creatures, to grant to us each the inner peace of mind that would heal anxiety and fear. He came to end war with the promise that on the last Day, God’s peace will reign and suffering will be no more, with every tear wiped away.  He was himself the presence of a peace that stabilizes and heals the worry and troubles of our lives.

Finally, Jesus made peace upon the cross by his own blood as an atonement for our sins and for the work of reconciling us to God and to one another. And what the church and the nation needs now is the power of God’s peace released through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Peacemaking is the Believers calling.  It is central to the mission of God through the church.

WONDERFUL NEWS that those persecuted for righteousness sake will receive the kingdom of heaven.

Last December one of you sent me a copy of George Hunsinger’s 2015 book entitled, The Beatitudes. Professor Hunsinger teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary.  In it he argued that Jesus was the embodiment of each of the beatitudes.  He wrote,

“Jesus is the secret center of the Beatitudes as a whole, and therefore, of each one in particular. He is finally their real subject matter, and in them he points to his own person. It is he who embodies each personal attribute, he who is truly the blessing, and he who is always the promise. The Beatitudes are thus best understood as the self-interpretation of Jesus. As Pope Benedict 16th has written, ‘The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him’.

At the same time, they are a call to discipleship and a sign of hope for the world’.” (pp xix-xx)

All of this is why I am drawn to Jesus of Nazareth. He was no “meek and mild pale Galilean”.  No!  He was a man who carried the gravitas, the authority and power of the reign of God in his life. He lived; He taught; He preached. Through him the tender mercies of God flowed into other lives.  His holiness, compassion, and righteous indignation about the brokenness of the world; His presentation of himself as the Truth with a capital T  drew men and women to his side and opened the door of transformation, of adventure, of pilgrimage, of the discovery of what is real and why we were born.

I have not had one regret about following Jesus, of listening to his Wonderful News. I have discovered that I am not in this journey for what I want to get out of it, but simply for the privilege of knowing him.  Every day my prayer has been that I might walk closely enough with him that I would become like him, even to bearing his cross for the glory of God, so that I may experience the authority and power of his resurrection life.

The journey is not yet complete. We know that we live between the “already and the not yet” of God’s kingdom.  And just as surely we believe that because he came and because he has poured out his Spirit into our hearts that one day heaven and earth will not just overlap and interconnect, but will be one.

Father, your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Journey Inward; Journey Outward

Date: February 5, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Journey Inward; Journey Outward is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Mark 1:29-45. It is the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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Journey Inward; Journey Outward

Sermon Text: Mark 1:29-45

The Gospels of the New Testament give to us living in the 21st century a glimpse into the 1st century A.D., and into the human condition into which Jesus came. Last week I quoted C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Jesus came into “enemy occupied territory” to begin his ministry. The spiritual enemy had enslaved humanity under the afflictions of “sin, disease, and death”. There had been a rebellion in this part of the cosmos, that is, on planet earth. There was a civil war going on. God the Creator had landed on the beachhead of the enemy’s dominion for the sake of liberating humanity from all that enslaved and dehumanized the family of man. Jesus encountered the enemy on the lakefront of the Sea of Galilee.

In the small village of Capernaum and in the Jewish Synagogue built as a public assembly gathering place, a man with an unclean spirit cried out in response to Jesus’ teaching authority. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Jesus rebuked the man’s unclean spirit. “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mk. 1:23-28).

The people in the synagogue on that Sabbath day were amazed at his teaching and healing authority and power.

So the divine invasion was launched. A beachhead was established on the north shore of the lake. As Jesus lived and ministered in Capernaum and the surrounding villages, the push back from the enemy was powerful and terrifying.

On that Sabbath morning Jesus and Peter walked from Church across the center of the village to Andrew and Peter’s house to discover that Peter’s mother-in-law had suddenly been taken ill with a fever. She was in bed burning up. This was in an age before medical diagnostics. There were no community health clinics. There were no antibiotics. An infection in the body, a common cold or flu, could quickly turn septic, poison the blood stream, and within hours pneumonia could set in and the person would be dead in a few hours.

This was reported to Jesus. He went into the woman’s bedroom, took her by the hand, and lifted her up.  The fever left her and she resumed her daily work.

On the same evening, at sunset, as the Sabbath was over, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons. The whole city was gathered around the door of the house where Jesus probably lived with Peter, Andrew, and the larger family.

Mark tells us that Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out the demons. The Galilee region was a land of deep spiritual darkness.  But with the coming of Jesus light was shining. The power of life, of healing, of love, and light had arrived and the darkness was being illumined. Matthew’s Gospel said it this way:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  Jesus saw the crowds and he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  (See Matthew 4 and 9)

As Jesus moved about the region with his disciples they encountered the blind, the deaf, the unclean, the lepers, the poor, the identified sinners, the dying, the broken, the wounded, the grieving, and the depressed. With love in his heart, he reached out to announce good news; he touched the lepers; he helped the blind to see again; he raised the dead, and gave hope to a hurting humanity. There was no cruelty in his heart, just the love of God and the truth of God’s kingdom incarnate in him.

The multitudes responded. His fame spread.  The crowds gathered, and Jesus worked intensively and endlessly.  The quiet years of working in Joseph’s carpentry shop were over.  Now he was engaged in a work that shook the foundations of the region and which would ultimately turn the world upside down.

Mark tells us.

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mk. 1:35


Jesus Prayed

Jesus had had a full Sabbath weekend of work. Yet, he got himself out of bed early in the morning while it was yet dark and went out to pray. How could he do that? On the Monday morning after a busy weekend of ministry I experience myself as physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent.

Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message shared with a group of us that on Monday mornings after a big weekend at his Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Christ the King Presbyterian Church, that he and his wife would get up early, pack their lunch and backpacks and drive into the Maryland forests. They had an agreement that neither of them would speak until noon Monday. They would walk on the wooded trails in silence.  During those Monday mornings the first order of the rhythm of life together was to be alone with God in silent prayer.

One of my pastor friends posted a sunrise video on Facebook of the Lake at Galilee. It was taken from Tiberius on the southern end of the lake. The video was awesome. The sun was just rising over the Golan Heights in the northeast.  As the videographer videoed from south to north the sky was a dark blue with a huge flock of birds flying over the lake from south to north.

Northern Galilee is a migratory route for birds moving from Africa to the eastern Mediterranean, to Turkey and Russia. One sees huge birds, storks and others floating through the heavens in community working their way to the north and to the east. I could not tell what the birds were but they were beautifully silhouetted against the dark blue morning sky over the lake.  I could hear the water breaking on the shore. Other than the water and the birds it was a morning of lakeside silence and calm, no wind at all.

The first time I saw this scene was in 1971. I took many color slides.  My friend and artist, Ruth Basler, borrowed one of the slide pictures of the sunrise with the light reflecting off the blue lake as the small fishing boats were bobbing up and down being prepared for the days fishing.  As I was leaving the La Canada Church to move to Laguna Beach Ruth  painted me an oil on canvas of that sunrise over the Sea of Galilee.  I treasure it as a reminder of where Jesus began his ministry.

I do not want to overly romanticize the lake, but to me it is a sacred place. When Mark wrote that Jesus awakened early on Sunday morning to experience the beauty of the sunrise over the lake from a place of solitude I understand. What must Jesus have been praying about?

I think the silence of the view over the lake from the north formed a Cathedral of holy space.  There as he looked to the south, he saw the lake, the hills, the beginning light breaking over the eastern hills of Golan.  It was there in the silence, in the solitude of nature that he was surrounded by the presence of God the Creator.  He prayed the Creation psalms.  I think maybe it was Psalm 104.  There the psalmist reflected on the trees, the land, the birds, the darkness, the light, the sun, the fresh air, the sea, and all the gifts of God’s Creation.

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

These all look to you to give them their food in due season.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works; I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;

May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord! Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord.” Ps. 104

The earth’s beauty calls forth our faith and adoration of God the Creator. In the solitude of that early morning Jesus praised the Lord.

God’s paradoxical Creation

Juxtaposed with the good creation were the paradoxical things Jesus had seen and experienced on the weekend. He had seen and heard the cries of persons who had lost their humanity to unclean spirits who possessed them.  He had seen the synagogue frightened by the demons cry.

He prayed for Peter and Andrew’s family. The mother-in-law had been healed of the life threatening fever.  He remembered the multitudes of the sick, the paralytics, the epileptics, the deformed, the lepers, the blind, the deaf, the oppressed and hurting humans afflicted by sin and death.

I believe he prayed for this fallen creation that could be so beautiful and good and at the same time bear such evil and mystery. The people he had encountered on the Sabbath were just the tip of the iceberg. They were a testimony to the magnitude of brokenness of nature and human life.  All of this called him out of sleep into the sacred place of view and conversation with his heavenly Father whose love caused his heart to swell with joy,  grief and tears.

Then there were the disciples hunting for him with the crowds demanding to know where he was. These were the 12 whom he had chosen to expand his mission, to be sent forth in his name to do the Savior’s work of making the creation whole. They were weak men.  The line of sin ran through their hearts. They could not be trusted to understand him and to support him all the way to Jerusalem.  He was mentoring them seeking to prepare them for his and their destiny that would take them beyond this beautiful, tormented lake into the suffering of a world longing for good news of salvation.  So he prayed for them.

Perhaps just as importantly, he prayed that his Father would sustain his energy and grant him wisdom as he faced another day of confrontation with the enemies of men’s souls and bodies. He prayed, “O Lord, do not let my power become an end in itself. Do not let pride rule my heart.  Keep me humble.  Protect me from the evil one.  Empower me to stand in truth and love this day so that your kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.”

When the disciples found him and reported, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Mk. 1:38

You see, Jesus was on an Inward Journey in love for God through prayer, but also on an Outward Journey in service to the kingdom of God. One without the other was incomplete.

Yes, brothers and sisters, there is an outward journey empowered by the spirit of the inward journey. One without the other is inadequate.

It is our relationship with God the Father through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit that renews and empowers our lives from the inside out. That is why Jesus was always breaking away from his disciples to find time and space to pray for what he needed to do the will of God.

This is why our personal and corporate worship of God is so important. Without it our soul will quickly run on empty.

Likewise, we may be filled up with prayer and Bible Study, always in worship, maybe speaking in tongues, but never going forth to use our spiritual gifts for the blessings of others. Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” Mk. 1:38

Risking to go out for the sake of kingdom work is energizing. Engaging with the world to work for justice, peace, and social righteousness bring meaning and purpose to our spiritual journey.  People feed us in many ways.  We receive far more than we give.  Blessed are those who have learned this great truth in life. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

We are learning, aren’t we? In the 1980’s the new leprosy came to town in the form of AIDS.  I was appointed by our Mayor to the City of Laguna Beach’s AIDS Education Task Force.  We learned a lot.  People were afraid.  There was no cure, no silver bullet to heal.   But some of our members began to reach out to bring comfort, to touch those who felt so rejected, shamed, and lonely.

We became aware of the massive drug and alcohol epidemic destroying so many young lives. We began to host AA and to seek to educate.

When the city nearly burned in 1993, we became a recovery center. Self-sufficient ones learned they needed help and cried out.  Think of the joy we have experienced in being at the center of this City of need.

Last weekend we received recognition from the Chamber, from Orange County, and the Community Clinic that we have been a major contributing institution for the well-being of our City and County. Those recognitions and honors call us to meditate in our inward journey and its outer expression.    I could go on and on about this:   All of this has slowly emerged out of years of coming to know Jesus.

Think of the abandoned orphans at Tumaini School in Kenya. Many of us support these little ones for Jesus’ sake.  He has called us to respond to the lost sheep who have no shepherd.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

What Is This?

Date: January 29, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

What Is This? is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Mark 1:21-28. It is the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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What Is This?

Sermon Text: Mark 1:21-28

Capernaum was a beautiful, small, lakeside village. The population lived on the north shore of the lake; the climate was tropical; the economy was strong. Trade routes ran near by.  The Roman legions were stationed not far away.  The people made their living catching fish or farming the surrounding hills.  There was a Jewish synagogue that was a community center and worship space.  It was to this building that Jesus went on the Sabbath in order to fellowship, to teach, to study, and to pray.

On one Sabbath he was the designated teacher. He took the scrolls of his tradition, read them, and interpreted them. His voice was steady.  He maintained eye contact.  He spoke from his diaphragm.  He projected his words.  Every one heard Jesus.  His Voice was filled with authority.

The listeners were astounded. He taught them as one having authority. This set him apart from the local scribes or rabbis. They would read a text and then share the history of interpretation. “One Rabbi said this, another Rabbi said that!” There was this school of thought; but then there was another school. Members of the gathered group shared their opinions. There was a diversity of voices. Members of the synagogue would need to make up their own minds as to the meaning of the text.

But Jesus came right out with it! “Thus saith the Lord!”

Jesus proclaimed a word from God. There was something about his presence that called for certainty, clarity, and conviction. There was no place to hide. His presence and his authority in speaking the truth of God made a dramatic impact upon the gathered members of the assembly.

About ten years ago I was a part of a Presbyterian team designated to work with an equal group of Jewish rabbis to rewrite our denomination’s paper, The Relationship Between Christians and Jews. Twenty of us met at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. The subject for that meeting was Truth. The question was: “What is Truth?” Our Jewish friends who represented several different denominations of American Jews went first. After small group discussions on the question: “What is Truth?” Those who were Jewish answered that they were not of one mind when it came to Truth. There were various opinions about “truth”. They had learned to be tolerant of their diversity and to embrace all truths.

I was stunned. I wanted to stand up and say to them, “You folks are people of the Book.  What would Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, or Jeremiah have said about truth?” I was so thankful that the head of our denominations Theology and Worship unit in Louisville gently presented our Protestant Reformed understanding of Truth:

He said: “For us the Truth is found in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is in his person, in his teaching, in his preaching, in his life, death, and resurrection that we have revealed to us what Truth is. We are encountered by the Holy One of God in Jesus of Nazareth! He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I restrained myself, but silently asked myself, “Is this the end of our dialogue? Where do we go from here?” Thankfully, the door was opened for differences and for various convictions. No one was forced to change their notions of Truth. Great friendships were forged out of that dialogue.

On that morning in Capernaum one of the men in the gathering became restless. He stood up in the circle of gathered Jews and cried out, “ What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24).

Imagine that happening. Many years ago a member of our church visited another church in town on Easter Sunday. The preacher in his sermon was exploring the various possibilities about Jesus’ resurrection. Our member listened with critical judgment. It seemed that the pastor was waffling on one of the most important truths or facts of the Christian faith.

Were there other valid interpretations as to whether or not the biblical story of Easter was factual? Our member stood up and confronted the preacher in the middle of the sermon time. People were upset. The preacher was angry. Easter Sunday was ruined. Early in the afternoon the pastor called me and asked if the man was a member of Laguna Presbyterian Church? Now I was troubled. I think he half thought that I had sent him to spy out his orthodoxy and to correct him. I would never have done that out of respect for my colleague for whom I cared. Nevertheless, it had happened. I apologized for our member’s lack of respect.

You never know exactly what might happen in a Sunday morning worship service. Public speakers need to be aware that there are folks whose emotions may become stirred and cry out, laugh, cry, stand up, and run out. Churches across the country now hire armed guards who watch for troubled agitators. In the present climate of public vulnerability and the threat of people carrying guns into church we have all been taught to be aware of what is happening in our space and what others might be ready to do.

Last year we had the LBPD give our staff training in how to respond to an active shooter. It was sobering, especially after what happened in the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. A young white man joined a mid-week Bible study of nearly a dozen African Americans. The pastor was leading it. Near the end the young man drew a pistol from his clothing and shot up the group. Nine were killed. At his trial he represented himself.  He said he wanted to start a race war. He said he was not crazy, but fully aware of what he was doing and why.  He was convicted and sentenced to die.

A story like we read from Mark stirs all kinds of thoughts and feelings within us. What can we say about the man who cried out in the synagogue of Capernaum?

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  He knew who Jesus was. He knew where he was from. He knew his name. To know another person’s name meant he had some power over him. So the man asserted his own power over Jesus. He called him by name. He exposed Jesus to the gathered group.  It may have been that the gathered group knew Jesus’ name already and had been listening to his teaching for some time.  But the unidentified man’s confrontation with Jesus was an unmasking or disclosure of a deeper dimension of Jesus’ identity.

“Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The man’s words revealed that the presence of the teacher was somehow beyond the ordinary. The man saw through the humanity of Jesus to the heart of who Jesus was.  He was the Holy One of God.

The gathered assembly listening to Jesus was on Holy Ground. God was present.  Yes, the same God whom Jacob heard and saw at Bethel. In a nighttime dream Jacob had seen a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending.  “And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring: and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall be blessed. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

When Jacob awakened, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Genesis 28).

For Jacob, Moses, David, and Isaiah the Holy Presence of the God of Israel was terrifying. This was authority and power beyond description.  This was the presence of a glory and grace that could annihilate anyone who carelessly gazed upon the bright shinning light of the Holy One.

David the Psalmist prayed,

“O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” He answered, “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Psalm 15).

Like Isaiah in the Jerusalem Temple, the man in the synagogue caught just a glimpse of who was present. He immediately knew he was a man of unclean lips and that he dwelt in the presence of a people of unclean lips.  You see, the Holy One had shown up in worship in the person of Jesus.

Annie Dillard wrote that we are often like children who come into a worship space on Sunday morning with our chemistry sets to mix up a combination of elements that might just get out of hand and over which we have no control. She warned, “We need to wake up to who may show up.” Therefore, she said, “As we sit in our pews we ought to buckle our seat belts and put on our crash helmets.” Why, because the Holy One may show up with all his holy authority and consuming love.

Such a presence and power shakes the foundations of our worldviews, convicts us of our uncleanness, surrounds us with the light of divine glory, and threatens to transform us from the inside out. For some of us that threat of transformation means the destruction of all that we have assembled and in which we have taken pride.

As the man in the synagogue of Capernaum was crying out Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” Jesus’ voice spoke with authority. He had mastery over the man.  He understood whose voice was crying out through the man. Jesus was unmasking the evil one. The troubled man was liberated by Jesus’ word of authority.

What happened that Sabbath day had profound implications for planet earth. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity wrote,

“One of the things that surprised me when I first read the N.T. seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin.

Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” (Mere Christianity, 45-46)

The people in the synagogue in Capernaum were amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:21-28)

Now, I do not pretend to understand the mystery of this story. I have no desire to become preoccupied with unclean spirits, demons, or the devil.  In the early 1970’s, the movie, The Exorcist, became a great success and was nominated for several Academy Awards.  Every one was seeing it or reading the novel. I decided to preach on the subject.  Afterwards, a highly respected man in our congregation at the time accosted me as having preached an unacceptable sermon with no word of God in it. Only my pastoral prayer that focused on love was helpful to him. His words wounded my soul, but we remained good friends.

This is the dilemma of every Bible preaching pastor. How do we interpret stories like the one from Mark?  When the highly respected scholar, N.T. Wright, an Anglican Priest and prolific N.T. interpreter spoke at our Presbytery Pastor’s Retreat a few years ago I was spellbound by what he shared with us about writing his book, Evil and the Justice of God. He said that all kinds of trouble broke out in his parish in England. There were troubles in his family.  His wife begged him to stop writing the book. The two of them came to believe they were under demonic attack. Why? Because he was unmasking the mysterious powers of evil and the enemy did not like it. There were voices that objected. Voices  that spoke through parish members and others. So I am not seeking to have a major confrontation with the evil one.

Nevertheless, what the gathered synagogue in Capernaum experienced was the liberating power of God’s kingdom present in Jesus of Nazareth. For a church or preacher that seeks to be faithful to the Truth, they will encounter crying voices, subtle threats, warnings of financial blackmail, and even letter writing campaigns to destroy the credibility of the messenger.

As Jesus’ fame spread in Galilee because of his teaching, preaching, and healings, at the same time resistance grew and he became aware that he was engaged in spiritual warfare. Thank God! His authority mastered the voices of powers that had enslaved and held in bondage persons who were dear children of God.  Freedom was coming to enemy occupied territory in and through the Holy One of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Answering the Call

Date: January 22, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet

Answering the Call is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet is preaching on Mark 1:16-20. It is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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Answering the Call

(Audio only) Scriptures: Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11

Mark 1:16   As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Luke 5:1   Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Bound by Chains of Approval?

Date: January 15, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Bound by Chains of Approval? is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Luke 4:14-30. It is the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

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Bound by Chains of Approval? by Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Sermon Text: Luke 4:14-30

Jesus was led by the Spirit of God to the Jordan River to begin his public identification with God’s will and mission for him. At the river he turned  to Jerusalem where he would become the lamb of God called to take away the sins of the world.

His journey to the cross was not an easy one for him. To make it would require a total surrender to doing the will of God.  The journey would take freedom of Spirit, a clear devotion to the reality of the rule of God in every dimension of his life, and a bold courage to accept and to live into the sure acceptance or rejection that lay before him. In the Garden of Gethsemane he asked the Father to take the cup of suffering from him, but the Voice was silent.

This is why the Father’s Voice at his baptism was so important for him: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Immediately, the Spirit drove him into a 40 day spiritual retreat to be tempted by the devil.  The issue was whether or not he would totally trust his Father’s love to sustain him; whether or not he would choose the way of upward mobility for the sake of being recognized as a successful, powerful Messiah, in league with the evil one; and whether or not he would promote himself, secure himself by a miraculous power, and thus prove to his generation that he was God’s Messiah.

He came out of that desert experience empowered by the Spirit of God to face into whatever acceptance or rejection he might encounter along the way.

So Luke tells us that at the age of 30 he began his public ministry in his hometown village of Nazareth where he was well known. Here he grew up working in his father Joseph’s cabinet shop.  He went with his parents to the local synagogue or gathering place for study, worship, and fellowship.  His parent’s friends knew him as the carpenter’s son who was a pious boy and a faithful Jew in keeping the law, interpreting the law, and embracing Jewish identity in the threatening Greco-Roman world.

When he returned to Nazareth from the River and the Desert Retreat, on the Sabbath day he went to his local synagogue and was invited to read the text from Isaiah 61 and 58 and to comment upon it. It read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me too proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

Then Jesus rolled the scroll up and gave it to the attendant. He sat down and began his interpretation of Isaiah’s words:

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21

His friends and neighbors were impressed by his words of grace and spoke well of him. He had become an excellent communicator and interpreter of God’s Word.

But then they whispered among themselves. Did we really hear him correctly? Did he not say that he was God’s Messiah, the Anointed One, who would inaugurate the kingdom of God? Was he not addressing the deep longings of every Jewish heart for God’s blessing of his people? Was he not affirming that the Year of Jubilee had arrived in which debts were to be canceled, slaves released, the blind given sight, property restored, the oppressed liberated, the poor blessed to hear good news?

How could this be? Is this not ole Joe and Mary’s boy? Is he not the carpenter’s son? The implication of their questions was that they were not ready to believe that the hometown boy was who he proclaimed himself to be.  Had Jesus gone off the rails?  Had he flipped out?

Jesus perceived immediately that the folks who knew him best did not believe his message.

Therefore, Jesus continued his sermon. “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.” Yet, he had the courage and the spiritual power to tell his fellow church members two more Bible stories.  In the time of Elijah and Elisha, he said, not one Israelite received God’s blessing and healing.  Rather, the prophets were sent to Gentiles in Sidon and in Syria.  They received the comfort and healing of the God of Israel.

By this time the people listening to Jesus were enraged with him. Not only had he said something crazy about himself, but he had called into question the election of his people and suggested that the blessings of God were for those who believed and obeyed the promises of God, Jew or Gentile.

They were so angry with him that in mass they rose up, grabbed him by his clothing, and carried him to the brow of the high hill of the village to throw him over. They were offended and rejected this hometown carpenter who was a false prophet and betrayer of his people.

How was it that Jesus had had the inner courage, faith, and clarity to speak this truth to people whom he loved and whom he knew would not only disagree with him, but also be determined to murder him for his heresy?

It is not that difficult to become angry with those who threaten our worldviews, whether they be religious, political, or economic. I can understand that.  As a pastor preacher, that troubles me!  How does a preacher stand up before his congregation and proclaim a biblical message that threatens the foundation of his church’s life? The preacher brings convictions to a people of conviction that limits the range of acceptance and comfort.

Remember the movie from a few years ago, Mass Appeal?  It was about an older Roman Catholic priest played by Jack Lemon. He was a practicing alcoholic who had learned how to keep the members of his parish happy and affirmed in their comfort zone. He had become a mentor for a young priest in training who was seeking to learn how to preach.  The problem was that the young seminarian saw himself as a budding prophet called to speak the truth to this wealthy, self-centered congregation who simply wanted to be affirmed in who they were.

The young priest tried to follow the older priest’s wisdom and instructions. But he would slip off track looking at the congregation dressed in their fine clothes, their fur coats, and purple hair. He confronted their hypocrisies. As he preached the people began to twist and to turn in their pews. The faces of the wealthy pillars of the church began to twitch.  People began to cough. As soon as the service was over the older priest was confronted by a chorus of church members who demanded that he never allow the young man to preach again.  The older priest returned to his church office and took another drink.  He called the young seminarian into his office and read him the riot act. Turns out that the young man was a closeted homosexual! How to talk about that?

Jack Lemon played the role as if it were a comedy. The message of the movie was so painful to watch. I laughed because it was  so real in unmasking the painful dynamics that are in every religious community. The boundaries of acceptable speech or behavior may be narrow for any one that desires to proclaim the fullness of God’s Word.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus discovered this. This is why the great American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in his book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, “That most young prophets are soon tamed by their congregations to become parish pastors.”

My guess is that this is a good process for those of us who think we know more than we do and who need to confess that we could be wrong about the substance of our truth. The first prerequisite for a preacher and the congregation is humility.

One thing for sure is that if the preacher has a deep need to be liked the ministry may be a surprising calling. Most pastors are people pleasers who resist moving beyond the boundaries of a congregation’s worldviews, even if it means neglecting biblical truths.

I was touched by Father James Martin’s truth telling about himself in his book, Jesus A Pilgrimage.

He confessed that he had struggled over his years with his own desire to be liked. He needed approval from the people with whom he served.  It all came to a head when a fellow Jesuit had great dislike for him and even despised him.  Martin struggled with the rejection that was coming his way from a brother priest. The brother refused to speak to him.  In addition, Martin felt called to speak out about a controversial issue in the church, which would probably earn him enmity. P. 126. His spiritual mentor told him he needed to discern this, to pray about this,  by praying Luke 4:16-30.

Luke’s story reminded him that Jesus had faced rejection by his hometown synagogue and yet had the courage to preach the sermon to those who had known him all their lives. To be sure he addressed a controversial issue.  In the Presbyterian Church we have guidelines for how we address controversial issues in community.

In meditating on Luke 4 Father Martin had become aware of how frightened he was of rejection. “I often wondered, ‘What will people think?’” p. 127. He confessed, “It’s a dangerous snare—you can easily end up paralyzed with inactivity, bound by the chains of approval.”

I was touched by the interview with Andrew Garfield in American Magazine about his role in the movie Silence. He plays Father Rodriques, one of the Jesuits who had tried to plant the Christian church in 17th century Japan. When the warlords, the Samurai warriors, saw that the Christian movement had the potential of turning their world upside down, they began to persecute the Christians and to destroy the faith of the priests.  In the midst of terrible violence and suffering, the Jesuit priests were pressed to decide if they would be faithful to their confession or apostatize to save their lives.

Before he played the role he asked James Martin to lead him in the Ignatian Prayer Exercises. It turned out that he probed the depths of his own inner voices that always suggested to him that “He was not enough” to act in challenging stage roles.  He would become terrified and ill with stage fright.  He discovered that his own inner insecurities, anxieties, and fears were at the base of his paralyzing terror and fear of failure and rejection.

The amazing experience that he gained from praying the scriptures of the Ignatian exercises caused him to “fall in love with Jesus” and “to embrace the way of God’s love”. The result was that he was released from the bondage of his need to be liked.  During that prayer season he heard a man playing a musical instrument beside the Thames River. He was imperfect, but the Spirit of God spoke to him through that imperfection. There he stood weeping that God might even use his imperfection in acting roles. In this way he was prepared to live into the spiritual journey of the Jesuits in the true story of Silence.

From where did Jesus get the courage to speak the truth in love to his hometown friends? HE WAS FREE!

Martin said that this courage came from his relationship with his heavenly Father which was nurtured in prayer.

Follow the major moments in Jesus’ life in the Gospel of Luke. The relationship of intimacy with the heavenly Father was nurtured in prayer. Out of this intimacy Jesus knew that his unity of love with the Father was the foundation of his identity and the power of his mission.  He had heard the Voice at his baptism and it was that voice that sustained his life and mission.

Martin said that Jesus’ courage to speak the truth in love came from the love of his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph.

Andy Garfield who played Father Rodriques in Silence, had a father who gave his son a small plaque to place on his desk that read, I Am Enough.

I want to share that was foundational to my ability to be a pastor and to tell the truth came as a gift my mom and dad gave to me. The last words Dad said to me before he died were: “I love you.” The last words my Mom said to me were: “I am so proud of you and I love you.” During my prayer walks I often remember those parental affirmations.

Lastly, that freedom to be courageous came to Jesus from his understanding of the mission which his Father had given to him to risk for the sake of the Mission of God. That mission was more important than whether a few people from his hometown disagreed with, disliked, or rejected him. P. 127

The preacher who wrote the sermon in the Book of Hebrews proclaimed to his conflicted congregation,

“Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1f.

There you have it! Jesus was free and we are free in him to be faithful to our calling.

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley





In the Line with Sinners

Date: January 8, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

In the Line with Sinners is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Matthew 3:11-4:1. It is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

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In the Line with Sinners by Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

Based on Matthew 3:11-4:1

When you visit the State of Israel it helps to know something about the geography. To the north of Israel in Syria there is a high mountain named Mt. Hermon.  Its elevation is 10k feet above sea level.  The snows upon this mountain melt and form the beginnings of the Lake in Galilee and the Jordan River.

The lake in Galilee, not many miles from Mt. Hermon, is 12 miles long and 7 miles wide. Waters flow into the northern shore of the lake from Mt. Hermon and empty in the south near Tiberias into the Jordan River. A geologist would tell you that the Jordan Valley through which the river flows to the south is the beginning of the great Rift Valley that runs to the south and ends in Kenya, East Africa.

In just over 100 miles the waters of the Jordan River drop from 10k feet above sea level to 650 feet below sea level at the Lake and then to 1200 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea. The journey to the Dead Sea is like the terrain between Mammoth Mt in the High Sierras and the Mojave desert. At 1200 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea one is at the lowest place on the face of the earth. In the summer the temperatures are very high and dangerous for the unprepared.

It was somewhere between the Lake in Galilee and the Dead Sea that John the Baptist did his preaching and baptizing. It was in this river that John baptized Jesus. As a part of every spiritual pilgrimage a visit to one of the proposed baptismal sites is important.

My first visit to the river was in 1971 with a group I was leading. Everyone wanted to be baptized in the river. So I baptized the members of our group one by one. We walked out into the green waters as far as we could somewhere near the southern end of the lake.  The last person to be baptized was my wife, Kay. Just as she came up out of the water a motor boat made large waves in the Jordan that splashed all over us. I thought to myself that this was maybe a parable of our wonderful marriage, always filled with excitement, adventure, love, passion, and tempest. I treasure that memory.

Certainly our group in May will visit one of the proposed sites of Jesus’ baptism by John and we will renew our baptismal vows. In preparation for the trip our group is reading Father James Martin’s book, Jesus a Pilgrimage.

Father Martin is a Jesuit priest, scholar, and authority in biblical theology and spiritual formation. Many years had passed between his ordination into the Jesuit Order and priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church until he did his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He and a fellow Jesuit, named George, a friend of many years, journeyed together to see the sacred places of the Jesus story. He wrote that the Holy Land was like a Fifth Gospel.

Those of you who have done the Ignatian prayer exercises know that Jesuits seek to discern the will of God by imaginatively entering into a gospel text and finding themselves in the characters of the story. They listen as both objective observers of a text and also as identified with characters in the story. They think the story and feel the story and discern the story for the sake of incorporating the truth of the story into their own life experience.

As James and George were driving south from the lake they came upon a sign pointing them to the baptismal site on the river. James desired to renew his baptismal vows in the river. George had been there before and had no desire to dip his body into the polluted green waters of the Jordan now filled with agricultural run offs from Israel and Jordan.  Nevertheless, they drove to the site that at one time had been heavily minded by the Israeli army in order to defend against Jordanian invasion. Now the road was simply a dusty entry to a part of the river that is visited by many pilgrims.

Reluctantly, James got into the river as did George. James became playful and began to splash the polluted water into his friends face. The result was that George got some of the water into his mouth and throat. He was ticked with James. They walked away from the river, retrieved their bottle of Listerine, and George washed his mouth, using the whole bottle to do it. Now James was angry with his friend for using the whole bottle. The journey back to Jerusalem was quiet. Neither spoke, but they were angry with each other.

James reflected on the experience. How was it that two Jesuit friends could have become alienated and silenced by the splashing of water and the use of all the Listerine?  Soon he realized what was happening. In their conflict and temporary emotional separation they were both bearing witness to the remaining sin in their hearts. This is the human condition. We are all sinners.

Conflict with friends, even close friends in the Christian community, can rupture relationships over minor things, and over big things. My boyhood friend with whom I grew up in Texas called me out of the blue this past week. We have not seen each other for nearly 15 years.  We have talked from time to time on the phone. He lives in Colorado and is married to my wife’s cousin to whom we introduced him. I officiated at their marriage and cried through a big part of the service. I was so embarrassed as a young pastor. He was the friend who went forward with me at the Billy Graham rally in Okla. City in the summer of 1956. He was at MIT and I was at Texas Tech. His friendship meant every thing to me and mine to him. We were on the same page in our worldviews!

As we were catching up on our families and churches, I mentioned how depressing this last polarizing election had been for me. He immediately responded with how joyful he felt about it and with the results. We both laughed. He teased me that he knew I was a California progressive liberal. I told him he might have added that I was an evangelical progressive with a heart for preaching the Word of God and of lifting up Jesus Christ.  Then I told him that even though we might have different political worldviews, that we were brothers in Christ and that we needed to find ways of staying in friendship working for the unity and well being of our country and of our church. I love my friend and he loves me.  Nothing will come between us. God used our mutual friendship to guide our directions in life. He agreed. We had married into the same families. Our wives are cousins. It was a reminder of how small conflicts may lead to broken friendships even in the church or family.

Human relationships and community are fragile. I remember an important mentor of mine from college years saying that we ought never to be surprised by the sinful failures of leaders within the church. The line of sin runs through every human hearts, he said. Not a one of us has arrived at perfection.

Jesus and John were cousins. They shared a common story, a family story, and a God story. John the Baptist had been called to prepare the nation for the coming Messiah, the Spirit anointed king of Israel who  in perfect righteousness and hot fire would call the nation to repentance of sins. He would baptize with fire and Spirit. To that end he called those who came out to him to confess their sins and to turn away from their sins by receiving his baptism in the Jordan River.

Multitudes of all kinds of people went down into the Valley, to the River, to listen to John, to repent, and to surrender their selves to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven. It must have been a highly charged emotional and spiritual moment as lines were formed to receive John’s baptism in the Jordan.

To be sure, John must have been shocked to see his cousin Jesus standing in the long line waiting to be baptized.

What was disconcerting for John was that his cousin Jesus was in the line. Apparently, the Baptist,  in some sense, believed that Jesus might be Israel’s Messiah.  If he were, he was no sinner.  What was Jesus doing in this long line of sinners waiting to prepare themselves for the coming of the kingdom of heaven?  Jesus had joined the wrong line. He was in the line with sinners.

Therefore, he said to Jesus,

“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Mt. 3:14

Either Jesus had made a mistake or there was a conflict of understanding about the arrival of the kingdom of God and of the part Jesus would play. If people saw Jesus standing in this line, they would assume he was a sinner like all others.  He had a lot of explaining to do to satisfy John.

He said to John,

“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John carried in his mind that when Messiah would come he would rally the troops of Israel, cast out the Roman legions, condemn the sinners of the world in a fiery judgment, and establish God’s kingdom in Jerusalem. All nations would come up to Jerusalem to hear the law and to be conformed to the standards of God’s rule on planet earth. Only then would history be healed, justice be given, social righteousness be established, and the perfect New Creation transform the earth. The only escape was to repent, to be baptized, and to surrender to the reign of God through his Messiah.

Jesus’ act of coming to be baptized by John placed him in the wrong line. If he were Israel’s Messiah he needed to get on with his work of healing the cosmos of the powers of sin and death.

But there stood Jesus in the line with sinners. He and John were in conflict.  They were cousins, maybe not knowing each other that well.  But Jesus stood before him desiring for John to baptize him.  He stood there in humility.  He stood there identified with the sinners.  It might have been that this conflict could have destroyed whatever family relationships they might have enjoyed.    Nevertheless, John consented and baptized his cousin.

This was an important turning point in the Gospel story. John had something to learn, and it was this:

Jesus was teaching John that identification with sinners was God’s will for him. He had entered history as God’s Servant/Son.  The Word had taken on flesh in Jesus for the purpose of being the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. Rather than coming with legions of violent angels to destroy humanity, he came to bear the sins of the world in his own body, through his life, death, and resurrection. It was only self-sacrificing, humble love that could atone for the sins of the world and reconcile humanity to God and to one another.

This was God the Father who had sent his Son on a rescue mission to save the lost and the enslaved. This was the only power that could restore the Creation to what the Father intended in the beginning.

As Jesus came up out of the Jordan he came forth as the 2nd Adam in obedience to the will of God to create One New Humanity reconciled to the way of God’s peace and joy. In that moment the heavens were split open to Jesus and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mt. 3:17

Thank God that Jesus was in that line of sinners waiting to be washed in the Jordan. He stood there for the sake of finding us all, of lifting us up to stand with him in his mission to the whole world.

Jill Duffield, in the Presbyterian Outlook, wrote, “The very Beloved Son of God, sinless though He is, submits to the waters of baptism. Matthew Myer Boulton puts it like this in his book, God Against Religion:

“Imagine the Jordan River, a line of unwashed sinner on one side, waiting anxiously for baptism, and a line of those newly washed clean on the other. And now comes God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the only one among them all who might truly claim to be clean and pure, and proceeds to get in line with the sinners…he crosses the Jordan, so to speak, in the opposite direction: from ‘clean’ to ‘sinner,’ from insider to outsider…he confirms his solidarity with sinners by submitting to baptism” (The Presbyterian Outlook, Online, January 2, 2017).

Every one of us who believes in Jesus and has been baptized in his name has received his identity and his mission to the world. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel the resurrected Christ who died for us, commissioned his disciples:

“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt. 28:18-20

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley







LIving into the Presence

Date: January 1, 2017 Author: Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet

Living into the Presence is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Steve Sweet is preaching on Luke 2:41-52. It is the 1st Sunday after Christmas.

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Jesus: Light to the Nations

Date: December 25, 2016 Author: Rev. Dr. Kathy Sizer

Jesus: Light to the Nations is a podcast of portions of the Sunday morning worship service and the sermon at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Kathy Sizer is preaching on John 1:1-14. This morning is a Lessons and Carols service. It is Christmas morning and we are celebrating the birth of the Savior of the world.

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Jesus: Light to the Nations

Christmas Day: Service of Lessons and Carols

Joy to the world! the Lord is come: let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing, and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns: let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sin and sorrow grow nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem!
Come and behold him, born the King of angels!
(REFRAIN)    O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning, Jesus to thee be all glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. (REFRAIN)
L:      The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
P:    And also with you.
If you received a Chime, please pass it to the center of aisle so that our Ushers may collect them at this time.

OPENING PRAYER    – Kathy Sizer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen!
* CAROL #155
Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall:
with the poor, and mean, and lowly lived on earth, our Savior holy.
And our eyes at last shall see him thro’ his own redeeming love;
for that child so dear and gentle is the Lord in heav’n above,
and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.

1ST LESSON. To Us a Child Is Born: Isaiah 9:2, 5-7    – Steve Sweet
* CAROL #124
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear Desire of ev’ry nation, Joy of ev’ry longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver, born a Child, and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit raise us to thy glorious throne.

2ND LESSON.  A Branch from the Root of Jesse: Isaiah 11:1-9    – Jerry Tankersley
CAROL:  How Many Kings?    – Chancel Choir

3RD LESSON. The Blessings of the Coming Messiah: Isaiah 42:1-7    – Steve Sweet
* CAROL #141
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to all on earth.

4TH LESSON. The Birth of Christ Foretold: Luke 1:26-38    – Jerry Tankersley

CAROL: Gloria In Excelsis Deo, J. Trenchard                      – Chancel Choir

5TH LESSON. The Birth of Christ: Luke 2:1-8  (Children’s Story)    – Gail Onodera and Steve Sweet
The children are invited up to the Chancel for the reading of the Nativity Story; following the story they are then invited to experience Bethlehem Village in Tankersley Hall or remain in worship with their parents.

* CAROL #143
Infant holy, infant lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Swift are winging angels singing, noels ringing, tidings bringing:
Christ the Babe is Lord of all, Christ the Babe is Lord of all.
Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping vigil till the morning new
saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a gospel true.
Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow, praises voicing, greet the morrow:
Christ the Babe was born for you. Christ the Babe was born for you.

6TH LESSON. The Angels and Shepherds at Christ’s Birth: Luke 2:8-14    – Jerry Tankersley
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King;
peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King.”
Hail the heav’n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new-born King.”

Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply echoing their joyous strains.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Come to Bethlehem, and see him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee Christ the Lord, the new-born King.
Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo.

6TH LESSON, cont. The Angels and Shepherds at Christ’s Birth: Luke 2:15-20    – Jerry Tankersley

CAROL:  Away In A Manger, arr. M. Ramsay                – Chancel Ensemble

7TH LESSON. In the Beginning…the Word Became Flesh: John 1:1-14     – Kathy Sizer
L:      The Word of the Lord.
P:     Thanks be to God.

MEDITATION:   Jesus: Light to the Nations    – Kathy Sizer

OFFERTORY: Hope for Resolution, arr. Caldwell and Ivory         – Chancel Choir
“Hope for Resolution” was composed for the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela.
“Hush nation, do not cry, Our God will protect us. Freedom is coming, Our God will keep us safe.”

O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
We’ll praise his name forever, we’ll praise his name forever,
We’ll praise his name forever, Christ the Lord!

PRAYER    – Steve Sweet

CAROL #138
(REFRAIN)    Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and ev’rywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.
While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night,
behold, throughout the heavens there shone a holy light. (REFRAIN)
The shepherds feared and trembled when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus that hailed our Savior’s birth. (REFRAIN)
Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn! (REFRAIN)

BENEDICTION    – Kathy Sizer

POSTLUDE: Joy to the World, arr. Hayes    – Sookyung Bang, Organ

From Bethlehem to Laguna Beach

Date: December 24, 2016 Author: Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley

From Bethlehem to Laguna Beach is a podcast of portions of the Christmas Eve worship services at Laguna Presbyterian Church. Rev. Dr. Jerry Tankersley is preaching on Luke 2:1-20.

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From Bethlehem to Laguna Beach

A couple of weeks ago on a Tuesday morning our pastoral staff was walking toward our weekly lunch at the Lumberyard. As we cut through the church Rose Garden and passed the church crèche that we will gather around later this evening, a woman approached us pushing what appeared to be a baby carriage.  She had a big smile on her face as she moved toward us.  Clearly she had something to share.

She said that her preschool grandson had earlier been standing in front of the crèche looking at the baby in the manger surrounded by animals and obviously his parents. He asked her, “Who is that baby?”  She answered, “It is the baby Jesus.”  The little boy turned around with wide eyes and a smile on his face.  He exclaimed, “Oh, Jesus lives in Laguna Beach.”

We laughed with her. I said, “Well, Jesus has lived in Laguna Beach for a long time.” As we walked away Steve said, “Now that’s a sermon illustration.”  The encounter set off a series of thoughts and reflections within me.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

This evening we remember that Jesus was born in a small village named Bethlehem in a faraway place we call the Holy Land, the house of bread, the home village from which King David came. In telling the story of the birth of Jesus Luke was writing both history and theology.  He wanted his readers to know that the birth of Jesus occurred at a particular time and place in history.

This was so important. If the birth story was just an ancient mythology or made up story, it would have little relevance for us.  It might entertain us or seek to communicate some meaning, but this story occurred in history to a flesh and blood family.

The Emperor Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar was on the throne in Rome. He and his armies had defeated the other Roman generals and their armies.  In pride and great celebration Caesar Augustus ruled the Empire.  He had united the peoples of the Mediterranean area.  Roman law and order took hold.  Roads were built.  The wealth of the Empire flowed into Rome.  The Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, was enforced.  Caesar Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, had declared his father as divine.  Therefore, Augustus was the son of a God whose sovereignty and power had brought salvation to the warring peoples of the Mediterranean region, from west to east, from north to south, this was Rome’s divinely established rule.

In Syria Quirinius represented Rome. Herod the Great was installed as King of the Jews and accountable to the Emperor.   Each of these names represented economic, political, and religious authority and power.  If they all gathered in the capital at one time the pomp and circumstance, the symbols of first century sovereignty and authority would have been majestically displayed.

And it was in that historical context of the first century that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to a poor couple for whom there was no room at the inn. So the one who was the Son of David, the Son of God, the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos, was born in the midst of  lowly shepherds, to a poor couple, and placed in a manger as the animals looked on.

Around 600 A.D. the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built over the place that tradition said was the birth place of baby Jesus, the Savior and Lord, the ruler of the kings of the earth.

The entrance to this church is very small. You have to almost bow down and crawl into the church.  That is as it should be.  The door to the church is named the “Door of Humility”. What has been proclaimed by this building across the centuries was that the womb of the Virgin Mary was the “Door of Humility” through which Jesus came into our broken world.  The small door requires all pilgrims to humble themselves in order to come to Jesus.

As Christian theologians reflected on the meaning of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary what they came to see and to believe was that the very face of God was revealed in the face of Jesus. It was as if God had chosen the way of downward mobility, of stooping low, to enter a sin troubled world for the sake of finding us.  He chose the way of downward mobility, and having found us his beloved lost children, he picked us up and carried us up into the light of life.

This was an altogether different story than the story of Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire. Rome represented the pride of Empire and vaulting ambition. This was an ambition that led to evil, cruel acts, to warfare, to narcissism, to self-centeredness, to the proclamation that might makes right and that power is the chief goal of all human organizations.

Juxtaposed to this way of the world was the way of God: the God whose love is at the heart of reality, who wants to restore the humanity that he created in his own image, who humbled himself for the purpose of healing and restoring the original goodness and peace that he willed and created.

I have loved the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This bending low to become God’s Servant- Son was how the reign of God’s kingdom was planted in our world. He was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary for the purpose of rescuing all people.

Little wonder that the world tried to put out the light of life. Jesus’ kingdom subverted the  kings of the earth and unmasked the idolatrous claim of peoples, rulers, principalities, and powers.

As devout believers bend down to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem they finally arrive at the cave under the church to see a silver star on the floor. Believers stop, often fall to their knees, kiss the star, say some prayers, and have a moment of solemn reflection.   People of every nation enter that small cave searching for something and sometimes disappointed by what they see and experience.

My 1996 group entered the cave connected to the RCC next door to the Church of the Nativity. It was cold outside. The cave was filled with pilgrims from many nations. Together we all sang Christmas carols in our own languages. It was a moment in which I saw through the eyes of faith the destiny of humanity reconciled around the throne of the true King, our Lord Jesus, whose shed blood upon the cross made peace and created one new humanity.

Last week the grandmother’s witness to her grandson’s declaration about the baby Jesus living in Laguna Beach brought this good news to me. This past Thursday as I listened to our preschool children sing the carols to us in this sanctuary I knew it was the message that I had heard in Bethlehem.  Out of the mouths of babes the truth of reality is proclaimed.

As Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he is alive also in Laguna Beach and in every place where he is worshiped.

He was born in humble circumstances. Therefore, wherever we discover humble people he is alive.

He was born to a poor couple. Wherever there is poverty, Jesus is alive.

He was born in threatening times in which there were rulers who desired to kill him. Wherever, demagogues oppress the powerless, Jesus is present.

He was born into a refugee family on the run to a safe and secure place. Wherever refugees are on the run from poverty, oppression, and hopelessness, Jesus is present and alive travelling with them.

It is in the faces of those on the run that we see the face of Jesus. Time Magazine followed 4 Syrian babies and their unique destinies in this time of history.  The L.A. Times major story this week has been about the people from around the world seeking to travel from south to north, from east to west to arrive on Americas shores.  The articles have been about the dangers of their long journeys.  People from Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and other places are knocking at our doors to discover walls and no open doors. We wring our hands with hearts full of fear not knowing what the future holds for any of us.

The threats of terrorism are real. We ask if Jesus is alive in the middle of all of this.

I cannot help but remember the picture of the little boy Syrian refugee whose dead body had been washed ashore in Greece. This is the world in which we live.  But this is the world into which Jesus was born.

He came into this messy world, so torn by human cruelty and evil for the sake of rescuing us. He bore the weaknesses of our humanity.  He grew up in the presence of his enemies.  The cries of the blind, the lame, the poor, the rich, the lonely, the suffering, he heard and saw.  He laid his life upon the altar of God’s love.  He launched God’s mission of finding the lost, of forgiving sinners, of comforting the lonely and hurting.  As one who was fully human and fully God Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.   Through patient endurance and suffering love he won the battle with the forces of evil.

If Jesus is not alive in Laguna Beach through the power of his Spirit, then we are all lost and hopeless. This is why we are present this Christmas Eve.  We are here because of the promptings of his Spirit.

A few years ago Fleming Rutledge, a female Episcopal priest wrote a book entitled, The Bible and the New York Times. It was a collection of sermons from the seasons of the church’s life. Her Christmas Eve sermon was entitled, The Magical Kingdom.

She wrote words that are my words this evening:

According to a front page article of the New York Times, the Christmas eve sermon is supposed to be the most difficult to write. On this night we are all very much the same. We yearn to hear a message of new beginnings, restored relationships, a hopeful future.  Whoever you are, the preacher is here tonight in solidarity with you, a person who, like you, has known both the joy and the pain, the light and the shadow, the exuberant thrills and the bitter disappointments of this mortal life.

She said this was why she was taking her seven year of grand-daughter to see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. It was more for herself than for her grand-daughter.  Fleming needed to be comforted by the magic of a world in which there are always happy endings.

Magic is what we want!

She was preaching in a congregation that she had left 17 years before. She said, I am not the same person I was. I am a lot older and a lot wiser.  I have seen many things, in my own family and among my parishioners, that I could only dimly imagine when I was in my thirties—many severe illnesses, much despondency, many misdeeds and failures, much death.

And I am a ‘miserable offender’.  But I am not embarrassed to stand here and tell you that I believe Jesus to be the unique Son of God, my Savior and my King.  In and of myself I bring you nothing that will last any longer than these candle flames.  But I do not bring just myself.   For those whose ears are anointed by the Holy Spirit tonight, I bring the gift of faith. I bring my deepest conviction, tested in the flame, that the ancient Christian message is the truth, yesterday, today, and forever.

I declare to you that the baby in the manger is the Son of God. The message of the angel is that the course of human history has been reversed by the only One who has the power to reverse it.  It is God himself who enters history on Christmas Eve, with the promise that in the kingdom that has no end, sadness will be turned into joy, sin will be vanquished by righteousness, and death will be overcome by resurrection.

For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord’; and “of his kingdom there shall be no end (pp. 49-54).

By Dr. Jerry Tankersley