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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON JANUARY 13, 2019, BAPTISM OF THE LORD Because I Love You Isaiah 43:1-7; Hebrews 4:14-5:4 So, the church staff has been spending this program year learning about the Enneagram. That is a personality type indicator, one that describes nine types of people in the world. You may have heard about the Enneagram because of a Sunday School class that Abbi Rodriguez has been leading in the Enrichment Center, to great response. Josh invited me to a seminar with Ian Cron last April, and though I knew something about it before, after that seminar I was hooked. Since then, the staff has really enjoyed learning about themselves and one another, so that we can be aware of why we act in the ways that we do, and so that we can be understanding of our colleagues and why they act in the ways that they do. Ian Cron said something at the seminar that I’ve held onto: “All typologies are false; some are useful.” By that, he means that we shouldn’t assume that any personality indicator has the power of magic or explains everything; he means that if you find it accurate about who you are, learn from it and use it. And here is what I’ve learned about myself: I am an Enneagram 9, meaning I’m a peacemaker. A person who is a Nine and healthy is a natural mediator, sees and values the perspectives of others, and can harmonize what seem to be irreconcilable points of view. A real weakness of Nines is our desire to maintain balance always. Ian Cron calls it “your chill.” Nines hate for people to bother their “chill.” And so, one temptation of a Nine is to avoid conflict, to keep to yourself, to cover your ears and close your eyes and hope the trouble just goes away. But things rarely work that way, do they? In more biblical terms, I think of it as longing for the kingdom, for what Revelation describes as the sea becoming like glass. Life in the kingdom will be like the Sea of Galilee after Jesus woke up, stood up, and said to the storm, “Peace, be still.” Life this side of the kingdom isn’t always calm seas, though; it can get choppy. And so we shouldn’t make an idol out of a desire for “chill.” We can pray for it, we can work for it, but we can’t wish it into existence. And we certainly can’t wish away storms. Nor, it seems, should we. The prophet Isaiah is crystal clear on this point: people who trust in God can expect that they must pass through storms and walk through fire. Faith is not a cheat code that lets you skip the hard parts of life. God’s power does not give anyone immunity to conflict. What faith gives us is perception. Faith empowers us to see God’s hand at work through storms. It gives us patience to keep going when we’re tempted to quit. It gives us courage when fear makes us want to flee or freeze or fight like a pagan. Every Christian needs to be reminded of this. Back in 1995, when I was serving a little church in North Carolina, I first visited Anne Bond’s apartment in Richmond, Virginia to take her on a date. I arrived a little early and she was still getting ready, so while she finished I looked through the bookshelf in her living room. There on the shelf was a hardback volume wrapped in light blue, with the title The First Presbyterian Church of Nashville: A Documentary History. It was Wilbur Creighton’s compilation of important documents from this congregation, along with commentary. Now, can you imagine how thrilled I was to see such a book on Anne’s shelf? I mean, really, this was a single minister’s dream come true! How many women have their church’s history on the shelf? What a woman! I sat down and started reading, and I guess that Anne was a long ways from being ready, because by the time she came out, I had read enough of that volume to say to her, “Your church had some kind of split in practically every decade of the twentieth century!” Now, that was an overstatement, but people didn’t call this church “the fightin’ First” for nothing. It had a past! But if you’ve been part of this congregation in the last seventeen years, that probably seems odd. The sea hasn’t been glass, but it hasn’t been very stormy, either. We have enjoyed good years during the pastorate of Todd Jones. I bring this up because, as we enter the interim period between Todd’s approaching retirement and the call of a new Pastor, we might be tempted to worry, to grow anxious, to assume that the future will be stormy. I think that would be just as faithless as to assume that the future will be like glass. Neither assumption is grounded in faith. Past history, like with the stock market, is no guarantee of future events. Pagans may believe that history is cyclical, a loop that keeps repeating itself, but Christians do not. Christians believe that God is the Lord of history, and works good purposes for those who love him. And the Lord says, through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” The Lord doesn’t say, “You’ll never have to pass through waters or walk through fire.” The Lord says, “When you do, I will be with you, because you belong to me. I am your God.” Twice in these seven verses, the Lord says, “Do not fear. I am with you.” I have witnessed that personally for nearly twenty-three years. Anne and I were married on June 8, 1996 in this chancel, with Mark Diehl officiating because Bill Bryant, Anne’s pastor, had retired and the retired pastor does not come back to perform weddings! And the very next day, June 9, the congregation met and called its next pastor. And the Lord proved faithful to this congregation as it welcomed Tom and worked with him and struggled with him. The Lord proved faithful when members formed different opinions of him, just as members had with the pastor who followed Walter Courtenay, just as they had with Walter Courtenay himself. And all the while, God’s message through the prophet was, “Do not fear, for I am with you.” For 204 years, that has been the message and the reality. First Presbyterian has witnessed, and borne witness to, the faithfulness of the Father of our Lord Jesus. We have joined in mission and grown in generosity, baptized and confirmed and commissioned a host of young people, raising them in the faith and sending them into the world. We have married and buried, wept with and rejoiced with, crossed the world and welcomed the alien into our midst. We have lived the promises of God for 204 years. Frankly, it always has been about the promises of God, and not about us, or about our circumstances. Isaiah wants all the people of God to remember this. Almost all the verbs in his sermon have God has their subject: the Lord “created” us, “formed” us, “redeemed” us, “called” us. The only command issued to us is “Fear not.” And why not? Why shouldn’t God’s people fear? Is it because God won’t allow us to struggle, ever? Is it because we never will experience challenge or trial? No. It is because we have a God who loves us. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Bono, the singer who fronts the band U2, tells the story of going home for Christmas in Dublin, after a long, grueling tour. He says, “On Christmas Eve, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I had done school there for a year. It’s where Jonathan Swift was dean. Anyway, some of my Church of Ireland friends were going. It’s a kind of tradition on Christmas Eve to go, but I’d never been.” He goes on to describe how he got a really bad seat, obstructed by a pillar; how he was so exhausted he almost fell asleep; how he kept himself awake by studying what was on the page. He says, “It dawned on me for the first time, really. It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story. The idea that God – if there is a force of Love and Logic to the universe – that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty … I just thought: ‘Wow!’… “I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this… To me it makes sense. It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic… Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh” (from Conversion Stories, John Mulder, 392-3). No matter how long you live; no matter how many times it dawns on you, this fact of God’s love continues to dawn on you, just as the sun rises day after day after day. Love takes on flesh. God acted in Jesus to demonstrate forever that he is with us, and so we need not fear. Hebrews lays claim to that promise by describing how Jesus is able to sympathize with us even in our weakness. There is nothing about our life here that he has not experienced, except sin. There is nothing about our life that he does not understand, and appreciate. There is nothing about our life that will defeat us, because he has redeemed us, already claimed us as his own. A couple of summers ago, I was reading this passage with the youth interns, and one of them helped me see something in it that I had never seen before. Jocelyn Andrews, who is a very good reader of scripture, helped me notice that there is something more here than struggling against sin. When Hebrews talks about weakness, and encourages us to approach the throne of grace with boldness, it’s speaking of our tendency when afraid to flee, or freeze, or fight like a pagan. And it’s reminding us of what Isaiah said: Don’t be afraid. When you have to walk through the waters or step through fire, don’t flee and don’t freeze and don’t fight like a pagan. Remember that you belong to God. God loves you. Jesus was tempted to do those things. When for forty days in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan, he was tempted to cut corners, to stop trusting God, to forget who he was. But he refused. He refused to turn stones into bread, or to gain the world’s favor by jumping off the temple and watching God save him, or to rule the nations by means of the Devil’s gift. He trusted God and he patiently walked the way that God had charted. And God proved faithful to him. That is how Jesus is able to sympathize with us in every way. And that is why Hebrews encourages us to hold fast to our confession of trust in him, and to approach his throne boldly, without embarrassment. He knows. Love took on flesh. Love became action. Love walked through waters and stepped through fire. When I was two years old, my father accepted the call to become pastor to a church in another town. I don’t remember that move, in August of 1966, but I do remember the early morning hours of Thanksgiving that same year. The beautiful new manse that the church built just for the Gordon family, all six of us, was burning. My earliest memory is of calling out to my mother, I believe in my sleep, that I was nauseous. It was the smoke. My brother Philip, six at the time, woke up, saw the fire, and ran downstairs through the flames to awaken our parents. My dad carried each of us downstairs and practically tossed us out the front door to safety. For some reason, I tried to run back upstairs to grab some toys. I yelled to my father, “My army men! My army men!” He said, “We’ll get you some more.” The fireman told him later that if we had been in the house five minutes more, we all would have died. It has been only in the last year that the gravity of that occasion has hit me. All my life, I had known that I was a child of God, named by God, claimed by God, redeemed by God. But it has dawned on me, as never before, that I really was redeemed by God. That gives a person an amazing boldness. It’s strong enough to take an Enneagram peacemaker, who avoids conflict like the plague, and make a believer who willingly walks through water or steps through fire. Love is that powerful. As John says, “perfect love casts out fear,” and God’s love is perfect. One of the most powerful scenes in the Harry Potter movies, for me, comes at the conclusion of The Goblet of Fire. Harry, Ron and Hermione are saying goodbye at the end of a trying school year. Hermione wistfully says to her friends, “Everything is going to change now, isn’t it?” Harry slowly walks up to her, places his hand gently on her shoulder, looks her confidently in the eye, and says, “Yes.” And Hermione’s countenance is lifted. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
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