Isaiah 35:1-10 (NIV)
1The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Matthew 11:1-6 (NIV)
1 After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Earlier John the Baptist had been so sure Jesus was the one, so certain Jesus was the Messiah. Now John is in prison and he doesn’t seem as convinced. It would have been understandable for John and many others to be waiting for a Messiah who would come in power, judging and defeating the Roman empire, chasing them away in defeat, winning independence for God’s people.
I can only guess what was going on in John’s head.
Here Jesus seems to be saying that he is the one who comes in grace, he brings healing, wholeness, and life. The kingdom Jesus brings is different from any kingdom humanity has anticipated or experienced before.
It is like Jesus is this fountain of grace. When people encounter him that grace flows into them and life is different.
As people who are seeking to follow Jesus, as a church we are connected to Jesus, our source of grace.
That grace works in us, moves through us, it shapes us, and it changes our communities.
Have you all ever heard of a Presbyterian pastor named Rev. Bob Childress? He was born in Ararat, Virginia in 1890. From what I have read about him, he was a really amazing guy.
Bob Childress established six churches in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, and some accounts say that in the 1950s he was leading, something like, 14 worship services a week. (I seriously don’t understand how these pastors had the energy to accomplish all they did.)
From what I have read, the churches Bob served kind of remind me of you all and the way you do life and ministry. His churches were always working on projects to help people. Bob was constantly giving people rides. He was always feeding people. The churches he served weren’t squeamish, they didn’t shy away from messiness and pain … they were real and genuine … they looked out for people who needed help.
His presbytery loved the way Rev. Childress’ work boosted their annual statistics … they loved the churches he started … they loved all the new members he was gathering. When Rev. Childress found himself stuck in messy situations and asked his presbytery for help, the best advice the presbytery would give was to “not get so involved in peoples’ lives.”
But really, being involved in the communities he served and building trusting relationships with people … offering grace to people who must have felt so left behind and stuck in messes was why his ministry worked.
The Blue Ridge Mountains Bob Childress grew up in were a brutal place. They were out of the way and forgotten back then. People were poor. There wasn’t much work. He remembers people mostly spent their time getting drunk and fighting. There were churches and preachers, but they were skeptical of theological education, taught superstition and fear, and didn’t offer much hope or grace. They seemed pretty resigned to the way things were.
To Bob, God didn’t seem all that involved or interested in what was happing in his community.
As a young man, Bob was part of the drinking and violence that surrounded him. It weighed on him, but it didn’t seem to bother other people. For them it was just how life was. During an especially violent season in the Blue Ridge Mountains, something happened and God caught Bob’s attention. A sheriff started to crack down on an especially violent and troublesome family. Two brothers from this family were arrested because they, “[Broke] up a church service by throwing rocks at the congregation.” In response to the brother’s arrest one of their uncles beat up a sheriff deputy. Everyone was sure this uncle would spend time in jail for assaulting a deputy — which would have been a first, because it seemed like this family could get away with anything.
The uncle’s trial turned into a massive disaster.
Here is how the New York Times described what happened at the trial:
(ROANOK, VA., MARCH 14, 1912.) Down to the quaint old red-brick courthouse at Hillsville, Va., where sentence was being pronounced on one of their number, a troop of twenty mud-splashed mountaineers galloped in with rifles from the surrounding hills, raced up the steps and, in less time than it takes to tell it, killed off the court, the judge upon the bench, the prosecutor before the bar and the sheriff at the door. Several jurors were shot, one mortally, and the prisoner and two bystanders also wounded. Before the smoke of their rifles had cleared away, the mountain outlaws leaped into their saddles and, putting spurs to their horses, galloped through the stunned village. Troops have been ordered and held in readiness at Roanoke and Lynchburg and the Second Virginia Regiment has been ordered to Hillsville.
Bob Childress joined the posse hunting the outlaws.
Reporters came from all over the country. These reporters were horrified when they counted 200 bullet holes in the courthouse. Bob couldn’t believe the attention his community was getting.
“But sure you must have shootin’ scrapes up North?” Bob asked a magazine editor at the hotel lobby in Hillsville. The editor only shook his head and showed Bob an editorial.
‘The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. They make moonshine, 500 horsepower, and swill it down; they carry on … feuds in which little children are not spared, and deliberately plan a wholesale assassination, and when captured either assert they shot in self-defense, or with true coward streak deny the crime. There are two remedies only–education or extermination … (Richard C. Davids. The Man Who Moved a Mountain (Kindle Location 416).
The editorial stung.
It caught Bob in the gut.
He never imagined life could be different. The reporters made it sound like it could be … and should be. Seeds of hope were planted in Bob that would lead him to give up his own hard drinking and fighting. These seeds eventually led him toward God, toward his calling to be a pastor, and shaped his intense hope, his vision that life could be different for his family and his community.
Looking back on Bob’s story, I am struck by how little grace there was in the first part of Bob’s life. It was so brutal. So hard. Feuds that wouldn’t end. Violence that took so much. Religion that really only offered hypocrisy and hopeless fear.
This might not be how Bob would describe it, but I think that when he realized life could be different, he got a taste of God’s grace and it was so good nothing else would satisfy him … he couldn’t go back … he had to share it.
Since Easter, we have been looking at the “Great Ends of the Church.” As Presbyterians these are a part of our tradition that shapes and guides us as we seek to live faithfully as Christ’s church. They are indicators of a living and vital church.
The Great Ends of the Church are:
- the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
- the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
- the maintenance of divine worship;
- the preservation of the truth;
- the promotion of social righteousness;
- … the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven (we could also say the “kingdom of God”) to the world.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, in what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he tells them to pray that, “God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of Heaven is about God’s will being done in our lives, in our communities, in our world. As Christ’s disciples, as Christ’s church, we exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world, as we seek to live lives that are shaped by a grateful response to the grace we experience in Jesus. It has to do with yielding to God’s will … trying to do what Jesus says is most important … loving God and loving neighbors.
Right now, I’m curious if exhibiting the kingdom of Heaven in our life together as the church means we are people who offer grace. Now is one of those times when we really need grace from each other. We are all trying our best to make our way through a global pandemic. None of us have ever walked this path before. It’s all new. We all are dealing with stress and loss and grief.
All that weighs on us. It impacts how we feel. It impacts how we interact with each other.
Now, maybe more than ever, exhibiting the kingdom of God to the world, means that we are people of grace. We are people who are shaped by Christ’s grace and we are people who pass that grace along.