Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

February 2017

Up On The Mountain


Transfiguration Sunday is always the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. The occasion we call the transfiguration - just another word for ‘transformation’ - is one of the events which help us answer the question - “Who really is Jesus?” Now, that may seem to be a silly question to you, but for the disciples who were struggling with who Jesus was, it is a very important question. And maybe for us it is a good question to ponder as well. Just because you know the stories of Jesus, you may not really have thought about his identity - and the significance of his identity. We know the Christmas story, we know the Easter story, we could all probably tell some of the other stories in the life of Jesus - but how does that define for us who he is in relationship to us and in relationship to God. “Who Jesus Is” is a much more important question than “What did Jesus do” and the story of the Transfiguration helps us to understand what that means.
The transfiguration leads into the season of Lent because what happens here can help us begin the Lenten season reflecting on Jesus. Lent is a time of reflection, a time of self-examination, a time of learning and relearning, so having a fixed image of Jesus helps to guide us in thinking about our personal relationship with him and how that affects our daily life.
Before the Transfiguration took place, Jesus had been instructing his disciples. Now, the disciples were pretty wishy-washy when it comes to understanding who Jesus is and what his purpose is. They are dedicated to Jesus; they are committed to his ministry, they feel compelled to follow him - but most days they don’t have any clarity about why. Once in a while we see a flash of recognition of Jesus as the son of God - but most of the time the disciples are really unaware of just who they are following. But we can’t be too hard on those disciples because we are often the same way. Some days we are right there with him; we feel inspired and excited about Jesus’ work in our lives - and then there are days when we couldn’t be farther from even thinking about him.
But on this day, Jesus is praying with and teaching the disciples and then he just looks at them and says, “Who do people say I am?” The disciples were honest with him and tell Jesus that people are saying different things. Most people think that Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist who had recently been put to death. Others thought Jesus was the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament who the Hebrew people believed would return before the Messiah came. Jesus thought for a moment and then said, “Well, then, who do you say I am?” Peter, always the first one to answer any question says, “Why, you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus says, “Good, Peter. But don’t tell anyone else that, yet. For I have to suffer and be rejected by the Jewish leaders and then be killed.” Then Jesus continues, “And for anyone who wishes to follow me, they must take up their own cross, give up their own desires, and keep close to me.” In other words, when you decide to follow Jesus with all your heart and being, the way is not always going to be easy. He continues by saying what is recorded in Luke 9:24-25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” Jesus is asking the disciples - and asking us - to consider our priorities if we are really going to follow him. Either the ‘things of the world’ are going to be important or the ‘things of God’ are important. And we have to decide that for ourselves which we are going to choose. And everyone has to make that choice. We can’t dance around it or put it off or try to play both sides of the fence. Thinking about this and making a commitment one way or the other is a lot of what Lent is for. To think and consider and struggle with this question. Do we prioritize the things in our life thinking of God and Jesus and the church first or do we make the other parts of our life more important and kind of fit God and Jesus and the church in around everything else?
Jesus is reminding us - giving us some fodder for thought - that if we do choose the ‘things of the world’ first, what good is it really going to do us. We can’t take it with us when we die - but if we choose Christ, God and the church , then we have gained eternal life. Even though it may be difficult now to put Jesus first, the longterm benefits far out way any inconvenience we have now!
Eight days after Jesus has this teaching session with the disciples, Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray and with him went Peter, James and John. Peter, James and John are the disciples that were closest to Jesus. All the disciples were important, but these three had a special relationship with Jesus and were often the only ones present when Jesus did especially miraculous things. These three are actually referred to as ‘the inner circle’ - the ones Jesus held in the closest confidence.
so up on the mountain they go to pray with Jesus. Jesus often goes up on a mountain to pray. Someone once called mountain tops a ‘thinness between man and God’. Mountain tops just seem to give you a closer feeling to God. Many Old Testament figures did the same thing - they went up on a mountain to meet God or to feel closer to God or even to have a conversation with God.
Anyway, the four of them get to the top of the mountain and Jesus begins to pray and Peter, James and John fall asleep. Remember this is the same thing that happens the night of Jesus’ arrest; the four of them go into the garden and Jesus begins to pray and there are Peter, James and John sound asleep. That night he wakes them up, he begins to pray again and back asleep Peter, James and John fall. Same thing on the mountain top this time. Jesus starts praying, they fall asleep but this time something spectacular happens. All of a sudden Jesus begins to glow and his clothes become dazzling white. Then two men appear to talk to him - Moses and Elijah - both of which also had miraculous mountain top experiences of their own.
Moses had gone up on the mountain at Sinai to meet with God and receive the 10 commandments and the Law from God. He was up there 40 days and when he came back down the mountain his face glowed - and it glowed so bright the people couldn’t look at him so he had to put a veil over his face. The interesting thing about this glow is that as time passed, the glow would start to face so Moses would go into the tabernacle where God lived and the glow would ‘recharge’ and become bright again! Elijah also had a mountaintop experience. Queen Jezebel sent an army to kill Elijah and he ran away and ended up on top of a mountain. There God came to him in a ‘still small voice’ and talked with him, renewing Elijah’s resolve to do God’s work in spite of Jezebel’s death threats.
So here they are again, Mose and Elijah who had come down from heaven and were now speaking with Jesus. The disciples woke up and saw what was going on and were really confused, yet they said they had this wonderful feeling as they watched. It must have been a very good feeling because Peter wanted them all to build shelters to live in and they would all just stay up there! But about as soon as Peter made all these plans, a cloud formed right above the mountain and came down and covered them and God’s voice was heard saying: “”Look! This is my son. My chosen one. Listen to him!” Then the voice was gone, the cloud lifted, Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus no longer glowed. All that was left of this great experience were Jesus, Peter, James and John.
The last verse of this account is pretty interesting - it says “And they didn’t tell anyone about this until long after...” No doubt - who would have believed them. But it changed them and their commitment to Jesus was renewed and refreshed and stronger because they witnessed first hand the revelation of who Jesus was.
Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Promised One. They were reminded of his authority as God said, “Listen to him!”
And what are we suppose to listen to? Right before jesus says the thing about following him he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”. So as we move into Lent, as we consider our struggle with who Jesus is and what he means to us, as we think about what it means to take up our crosses and deny ourselves - we remember this transfiguration - this transformation that happened on that mountain.
As we go into Lent - go with these questions - Who is Jesus to me? What does it mean for me to take up my cross? And after I think about those questions - think about “What difference is it going to make in my life?


Its All About Love


Think about songs with love in the title. I imagine if we started right now we could name songs with ‘love’ in the title for the rest of the service. Country songs, pop songs, rock songs, Christian songs - and if we expanded the list into naming songs about love - we’d be here for the rest of the week. Love is a Many Splendid thing, What is Love, It’s all about love, Love theme from Romeo and Juliet, Have I told you lately that I love you, we could go on and on. Then we could start naming movies and books and TV shows about love - what about poems that are about love? We could just name love things forever. We even have a holiday centered around love - it is almost Valentines Day and it is a day about love. We as a culture are obsessed with love. So my next question for you is this, “What is love?” How would you define the word ‘love’? What does love ‘look like’? How do you recognize love in yourself and in another person? Most of us would answer those questions a little differently - or maybe a lot differently.
The Bible also has a lot to say about ‘love’. The Bible answers all these questions for us - it helps us to understand what love is, it helps us understand the attitudes surrounding love and it helps us to learn what love looks like as it is lived out in our lives. What the Bible tries to do is teach us how as followers of Christ we look at love differently than our popular culture. What the Bible tries to do is teach us this concept of ‘perfect love’ - love that produces relationships, peace, respect and understanding between people. It helps us know what is expected of us as God’s people as we interact with each other in the community of faith, in the community around us and as we live in relationship with God.
The word ‘love’ appears over 600 times in the Old and New Testaments. However - you’ve probably heard this before - the Jews and Greeks had different words for ‘love’. There was no one ‘love’ word like we have - we just have the word ‘love’ and it covers a lot of different connotations. I use the word ‘love’ to describe how I feel about a TV show and about how I feel about my children - and clearly that is not the same emotion! In the Old Testament which was written in Hebrew, there are three different words used at different times. ‘Ahab’ is a Hebrew word that means ‘impulsive love’ or ‘spontaneous love’ - it is that love you have for someone when you don’t really know them but you see them and immediately feel some type of attraction. There is ‘hesed’ which is the type of love a married couple has after being married for many years - called ‘covenant love’ - it is a love that comes from a standing relationship and sometime we find it in the Old Testament as the word ‘lovingkindness’.
Then we have ‘raham’ - which is a compassionate love, a caring love. You see someone hurt or sick and that immediate response of wanting to take them in your arms and make it all OK.
When we jump to the New Testament which was written in Greek we have even different words that are used. These you might be a little more familiar with - We have ‘eros’ which is a romantic type of love - that little flip your heart does when you see the one you love; ‘phileo’ which is brotherly love, companionship, friendship - the love you have for someone you know and care about; and finally ‘agape’ - perfect love, the love God has for his people - the type of love we are to strive for as God’s people. Interestingly enough the word ‘agape’ for love is not used anywhere else in literature except in the Bible.
Now you may say this is all pretty interesting and you aren’t going to remember all this and it is nifty information to know - but practically what do all these strange sounding foreign words have to do with trying to figure out this love thing... And the answer is - the Bible points out all these different views of love because in order to understand the scope of how much and in how many different ways God loves us we need all these different illustrations to get the whole picture of God’s love. In all these ways - a romantic love, a compassionate love, a brotherly love, a covenant love.... and so forth. God loves us in
all these different ways. God loves us with such an all encompassing love that it takes six words to get the whole extent of it.
It is not only words that God uses to explain how he loves us. We have story after story especially in the Old Testament about how much God loves his people. When the Jews assembled the Old Testament and named the books they indicated for us the book that was the ultimate book on love - the book that we often find named “Song of Solomon” in many versions of the Bible is actually called ‘Song of Songs’ - and more modern translations used that title. ‘Song of Songs’ was the original title of the book. That name, ‘Song of Songs’, is the Hebrew way of saying - the best of the best. In other words the Jewish scribes wanted the readers of the Hebrew Scriptures to know that this was the ultimate book of the collection - it was the ‘book of all books’. We don’t hardly ever used it but the Jewish authors of the Hebrew Bible felt that this book was essentially the book that should be read first - this is the ‘best book’. ‘If you want to pick a book to read, this is it!‘ is what the Hebrew writers were trying to convey.
For a Jew it is still an important book - every year during the Shabbat - the worship - during Passover, this book is read in its entirety as part of the Passover worship service. It really doesn’t take too long to read aloud and it is truly a beautiful peace of poetry which talks about the love between a young man and a woman he loves. In this poem are just wonderful images of the love between a man and a woman. It is almost sappy and drippy love - ‘your fragrance is like sweet honey’, ‘your eyes are like a dove’, ‘ you are like a lily of the valley; as delicate as a rose‘ ‘You are as beautiful as an apple tree’. Maybe not the same images we would use but you get the point. On and on these two people express this love toward one another. There is even a portion of the poem where we see that famous scene of two people who love each other running across the field toward one another in slow motion with their arms out until they finally meet in the middle in a hug. That is in that poem - 1000s of years before we ever saw it in a movie!
And the reason the Jews think that this love poem is so important is that this is to give us a picture of how God loves us. It says to us - remember that time in your life when you were head over heels in love with someone - those times when you would look at someone and your heart would do a little flutter, where everything about that person was just perfect and they could do no wrong. They could be totally incompetent and homely as all get out, but to you they were the most beautiful thing in the whole world. We remember that - Song of Songs says - that is how God loves you. Think about it - have you ever considered that God loves you in this way. That God’s heart does a little flutter when he sees you, that he looks at you with that same perfection and that same way of overlooking all your faults. That to God you are as beautiful as an apple true and your fragrance is like sweet honey; your eyes are like doves..... That is how God loves each and every one of you. What the Song of Songs does is help us understand when we hear - “God loves you” - now we have a picture of what that looks like.
While the Old Testament spends most of its time teaching us about how God loves us, the New Testament is much more concerned about how God’s loving us compels us to love others. And we learn very quickly that it is not easy. Love your enemies was the thrust of the passage that we read this morning - how easy is that? Love those who strike you and steal from you and persecute you; love those who borrow from you and don’t return what they borrowed, just let them have it; if someone asks something of you - give it to them regardless of what it is. Jesus tells us to wear a Tshirt that says “It doesn’t matter what you do to me, I’m going to love you anyway.” And worse of all, the Apostle Paul in that great description of love in I Corinthians 13 tells us that love has to be patient - patient? It might be easier to love enemies that to love patiently.
A couple things - this is not an all inclusive list. We are not to memorize the things Jesus said and the list Paul gave us and carry it around with us like a little checklist of how we act around other people - what both Jesus and Paul are trying to get us to see that as God’s people, we are to be different that everyone else. Jesus says, ‘anyone can love their friends, but it takes someone special to love their enemies - and that special person is you.’ Show people that living as God’s people makes you different - and this is the best way to do it. It is not a checklist but an attitude towards others.
But there is one more important point - and that is this - none of this is possible for us to do - we can never achieve this ‘different’ attitude, this ‘different’ way of treating people - we can never love our enemies until we truly believe that God loves us; that God loves us just as we are. That God loves us with our warts and our faults and our failures - God loves us like star crossed lovers running across an expanse of waving daisies with open arms. You have to believe that with your whole heart. Not because the Bible tells you to do it, not because I’m telling you to believe it - but because it is true. God loves you just as you are right now.
When that happens - when you finally put aside all these reasons God can’t love you, when you put aside all these things you think you have to do before God can love you, when you finally buy into the fact that God loves you regardless and there is nothing you have to do, then you will not only begin to be able to love your enemies and do all those things Jesus asks you to do - but you will also be able to love yourself.

The Church in Celebration

The Church in Celebration

We join together this morning, members, friends, family to celebrate the anniversary of this church. On special occasions like anniversaries it is natural to look back over the past, to smile as we remember the good times (like in the ‘photo’s we’ve shared), and perhaps to sigh as we recall the not-so happy times. So it is today that we look back over the years since the founding of this church – to the ‘birth’ of this church, brought into being through the vision of a small number of people, dedicated to following Jesus.
I sometimes think what a wonderful time it must be, when a new church is founded. How exciting it must have been as the founders of this church sought to come together in Christian community, then to build a place of worship. And how exciting it must have been for the people to build themselves up as Christ’s church here, to strive to fulfil Christ’s commission in faith and trust in God, to “preach, baptise, and live out the mission” he had begun. What a wonderful time that must have been, seeing the building rise to the glory of God, and seeing the congregation grow and strengthen – a Christian community singing and praying to the glory of God. Yes, what wonderful times they must have been, the first couple of years of this church’s life when, in its infancy, perhaps it was even a joy to overcome the many problems and difficulties that arose!
And who could have foreseen what it would mean for this church community to provide loving, Christian service to this area? Certainly there were things to be thankful for: a growing church, several generations of people gathering here at one time to worship and learn: babies, children, young people and adults of all ages – all together in Christian community! What joy and thanksgiving must have been felt at the rites of baptism, marriage and in the seasonal celebrations of the church year!
Then there are memories of worship services every Sunday morning. Then there were church socials during the week and evening activities – all to foster Christian fellowship: memories of life-long friendships forged here among the people of this church – perhaps often where one met one’s marriage partner too! Happy times! And what a source of strength and support the church must have been for people in sadder times too – as we think back upon the past.
For, at times of remembering – and giving thanks to God for – the life of a church when celebrating its anniversary, we often think of the less-than-happy times its people have seen too.
But it is testimony to the strength of Christian community, a community of people dedicated to living their lives in faith in Christ Jesus, that even in those most terrible of events, the church here not only survived but continued to thrive. So it is that the love of God wins through even the bleakest of times. And so it is that this church has seen times of great joy and celebration, and times of great hardship, as we look back over the past. A past through which people sought-out the presence and guidance of God; a past where people strove to live-out their faith and share their faith with others;
This church anniversary, then, provides the opportunity to reflect upon what God has done through this church community over the last 70+ years. It is a time to reflect upon our experience of God being (as it says in Psalm 46) our refuge and strength in times of trouble, thus there is no cause to fear – even though change is all about us – and not necessarily change for the better!
You know, when people voice concern for the future of the church – we can turn to the biblical theme of the ‘remnant’. It is a theme that resides deep within the biblical story of the faithfulness and obedience of God’s people. Now, we are used to thinking of a remnant as being a ‘left-over’ piece of cloth or carpet, being sold-off cheap because it is the ‘end-of-a-roll’, or an odd shape or size, of little value. But the Biblical idea of remnant is very different.

One example of the biblical ‘remnant’ is the story of the Noah. In the messiness of a corrupt culture, God was gracious and chose Noah, who is described as ‘blameless’: Noah, who ’walked with God’, his family and the animals survived on the Ark. They were God’s ‘remnant’ from whom the earth was once again re-populated. The theme of God’s ‘remnant’ appears again and again throughout the Old Testament. In whatever calamity befalls God’s people, always there is a hint of God’s grace in the survival of the ‘remnant’. Throughout the history of God’s people, the same pattern appears – the disaster, followed by a diminished number of people, and then the survival of a seeming ‘handful’ of people – faithful and obedient people, who are not so much the end, but a new beginning. They are called to continue witnessing to God’s love, made known to us in Christ Jesus, to the world around us.
Yes, the church is God’s remnant. In the messiness of the culture, God inspired a group of people 70 some years ago to come together, just like Noah’s family, and listen to the guidance of God; people who were willing to obey God’s directive to make this ark in the midst of this community. You know there were nay sayers just like there were around Noah, yet faithfully and obediently this small group of God’s remnant, built this sanctuary and gathered as a community of faith and headed out onto the seas with great hope for the future.
No matter how large or small a church community the church is God’s ‘remnant’. Not in the sense that the church is a ‘left-over’, going cheap, the ‘end-of-a-roll’, or of little value. But rather, a ‘handful’ of people – faithful and obedient people – who are not so much the end, but a new beginning. In this we can all take hope and courage because we can believe, in faith, that no matter how fierce the present challenges; however painful the change; however steep the decline, God’s promise is that the remnant will live-on. The ‘remnant’ is that within which God invests all hope and faith for the future – the church.
As we gather here today on this day of celebration, what do we take from here?
The single-most important thing is to remember the faith of those people who were willing to get on the boat called Sweetwater Presbyterian, to focus their lives on Jesus Christ enough and get this congregation up and running. It means we too need to live in Jesus. For apart from Jesus we can do – be – nothing. We retain the commission of Jesus to ‘bear much fruit’, and become (more and more) as Jesus’ disciples. Moreover, Jesus calls us to be empowered, to be encouraged, to be hopeful, drawing on his love. If we live in the love of Jesus, by obeying the commandments – especially his command to love – then we will be living in him, and his love through this remnant still willing to stay with the ark in choppy waters or calm seas.

Let us reflect, then, that as ‘remnant’ we are called not to be pessimistic about the future, but to be the source of all hope and future promise. Even if the church is small in numbers, and the trend continues to be small, then the biblical message is that this ‘smallness’ need not be a cause of despair, but rather a call to give thanks to God that he still entrusts us with the Good News, called to celebrate the fact that God still has purpose for us. Let us remember, no matter what is to come – we are still the body of Christ, living in the love of Jesus.

Let us celebrate, then. Let us give thanks to God for all his blessings to us here through the past 70 years. Let us give thanks to God for all his blessings to us through to the present day. And let us give thanks to God that, as ‘remnant’ God entrusts to us the responsibility to live-out the Good News of Christ Jesus; we are called to continue witnessing to God’s love. As ‘remnant’, we are that within which God invests all hope and promise for the future, rooted and living in the love of Christ Jesus. Like Noah, God has set us on the boat and trusted us with his future.