Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Again"

Message preached March 27, 2005
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Jeremiah 31:1-6

Order of Worship

            Here we are ... again. Has it really been a year since we last gathered to celebrate Easter? Well, technically - no. This resurrection day comes a bit earlier this time around. In 2004, it arrived fifteen days further into the season of Spring. More time for daffodils and other signs of warmer weather to push their colorful heads above the ground. Our rejoicing today may feel just a tad ahead of schedule ... like about two weeks.

            But, here we are ... again... Sitting in on the youth Sunday School class last week, I overheard a comment about the repetitive nature of how we relate our faith. "Every year," spoke this youthful lament, "we tell the same story, over and over again." And, you know, it is true. Again and again, we do share the same, old story - year after year... Let me be honest with you, this may be the most dynamic Sunday in the life of the church but, you know, every year us preachers scramble around for a new take on this greatest story ever told. I mean, arenít there only so many ways you can tell it ... again?

            As I shared (again and again) before our recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was nervous about preaching in our sister congregation there. It wasnít just the language barrier, though, that caused me anxiety. It was the content. What should I say to them? I wondered. Preaching here in the United States is a spectator sport. "Youíre only as good as your last sermon," someone in this congregation once jokingly told me. He was right. In this consumer-driven society, the church competes with every other form of communication to be heard.

            As people turn their attention away from a television program, for instance, and the Nielson ratings go down, shows get yanked off the air. How different are sermons which, by the way, have shrunk in size over the years to match the diminishing attention spans of people, just like TV? Not all that long ago, preachers could go on for an hour or more. Some of you may even remember those days. In the best cases back then, preachers captured the imagination of Godís people with their words. In the worst, they said the same thing, again and again and again.

            I went to the Dominican Republic with a bit of our societal mindset. When the time came for me to speak, I launched forth to tell the old story again in a new way. After I finished and sat down, I remembered all the things I had planned on saying but forgot (I preached without a manuscript or notes, you see). As is often the case here, when I was done, I ripped my message apart in my head, feeling like it was one of my worst ever.

            A funny thing then happened, however, in that Sunday evening service last January. Worship, you see, isnít really about me - the preacher. God took my tired, old message and did what God does, again and again and again. Godís people rose in prayer that night - mightily so, I should add. We are, after all, resurrection people, whether we live in San Juan de la Maguana or here in Maryland. We just, sometimes, forget that fact, paying more attention to our own ability than to Godís power to redeem and transform again and again and again.

            Well, friends, here we are ... again. Easter is once again in our lap, and we tell the old, old story one more time. Yes, itís like a re-run that you have seen on television so many times that youíve lost count. By the way, I do sometimes wonder over how a person can watch with interest the same episode of The Simpsonsģ that they have seen again and again and again, and yet feel like church is the same old, same old - the same story, just told again and again and again. You know what Iím saying?

            Of course, I do need to add that the story as weíve received it in scripture is not exactly the same story every place it is written down. We like to harmonize the four gospels, to try to make them tell the story in the same way. Furthermore, we seek to rationally explain away every difference we find, raising our enlightened question at every juncture.

            For instance: was it just the one Mary who went to the tomb alone, as John tells it, to ... uh ... well, John doesnít exactly say why she came to the tomb? In his account, Jesusí body received all the preparation for burial it needed on the day of his death (John 19:40-42). Or were other women involved, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke recall the day, in varying combinations - "Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome" (Mark), or just "Mary Magdala and the other Mary" (Matthew), or just "the women" (Luke)? Did preparing Jesusí body for burial have to wait until after the Sabbath because they didnít have enough time on Friday?

            And then, of course, come the other details of that resurrection day, about which the gospel writers seem to disagree. I mean, were there two heavenly messengers, who appeared to just Mary (John 20:11-14), or to the women (Luke 24:4-8), or was it only one "young man" (Mark 16:5-8) or simply an "angel" (Matthew 28:2-8) who greeted them in the empty tomb? That last detail these good news story-tellers all agree upon - that the tomb as empty. However, the rest of the story varies from gospel to gospel.

            The point is, from the very outset, this greatest story ever told is not the same old, same old. If we make it conform to our expectation that all the details be exactly the same when we pull the four gospels into one running narrative, then it is our problem that we have made it into a boring repeat, shown on the big screen of our worship once a year.

            To be honest, I appreciate that there is more than one way of telling this central story of our faith. It reminds me, once again, that resurrection is lived out in a variety of ways today. Itís been a year (well, actually, one year minus fifteen days) since we last gathered to celebrate Easter. Much has happened in that amount of time. I grant you that not all the news has been good. However, God has transformed and redeemed His people so many times we have lost count. Even the darker moments have been made to shine, as Godís people (i.e. you and me) have been given the power to stand through them, again and again and again.

            Need I remind you of a young mother among us who thus far is beating the odds against breast cancer? Yes, she has had bad news moments, this week being full of some. But God is raising her up, even as God is in the process of raising us all up, again and again and again. We donít know the details of what the future holds for us, but we know in our hearts the One who does the lifting, in whose arms the future rests.

            Furthermore, we live with the promise that even when things do not work out as we think they should, when the final barrier is crossed for each of us and we are laid to rest in our own grave, God will raise us up on the last day. There will be a resurrection of the dead. On that day, our story in Christ will have only just begun. The Easter song will be sung again and again and again, and it will never be like a repeat youíve seen one-too-many times.

            Speaking of repeats, we heard earlier the words of Jeremiah. They come from what some call his "Book of Consolation." This Hebrew prophet was known for plucking up and tearing down Godís people with his words and symbolic actions. By the way, even bad news can be good for us, if we heed the message, if we turn from wrong directions and face toward God. To many folks in his own day, Jeremiah might have been heard as a broken record of such bad news, repetitively speaking the same old message of repentance, again and again and again.

            However, that was not the only melody God wanted Jeremiah to sing. There came a time when this passionate prophet was called by God to turn and sing a resurrection song. We heard a few verses of that tune earlier, sung for those who had experienced some of the worst that life could throw their way, deserved or not. It was a rebuilding song, a planting hymn, with a dancing beat, intended to help people rise from their problems and step forth into a new day.

            Now, as Christians, we need to be careful and not take this song away from our Jewish neighbors, as if it is our exclusive property. It originally was a song, after all, for the exiles of Israel whom God promised to bring home one day from their captivity in Babylon. With Godís help they did return and rebuild Jerusalem, dancing with this building and planting song of God as they did so. The scripture we heard earlier is a Hebrew resurrection song which, in light of Easter, the followers of Jesus down through the years have sung in our own key.

            "I have loved you with an everlasting love," God sings out through Jeremiah in this song. The rhythm of it moves to the beat of Godís faithfulness. Again and again and again the beat rings out. Thatís the thing about rhythm, you know - itís very repetitive. You can depend upon it. You can tap your feet to it. You can lose yourself in the joy of its dance. In the Lordís song, we rise to new life.

            By the way, our brothers and sisters in the Dominican Republic do not share our Brethren aversion to rhythm. Unlike us, they are not afraid of dancing, of putting the joy of the Lord into the merengue beat of their culture, even in worship. As weíve already shared before, the instruments which accompany their singing are drums and tambourines and homemade merengue guiros. The steadfast, everlasting, faithful love of God is the underlying beat of their worship.

            In Jeremiahís resurrection song, God sings, again and again and again, "Again, I will rebuild you... Again, you will dance for joy... Again, you will plant ... and enjoy the fruit..." This is an Easter song, my friends, one we should not be afraid nor ashamed to sing and dance to. It is a melody not meant to be sung just once a year, however. The joy cannot be contained. Every time we sing Godís resurrection song, every time we tell the old, old story - even it we tell it again and again and again, it is just as amazing as the first time.

            Therefore, brothers and sisters, "Come, let is go up to Zion, to the Lord our God." ..."Take your tambourine and go forth in the dance!" Here we are ... again.

         (As the merengue guiro, above, is mentioned, a member of the music group comes forward and takes it from the preacher - it's been sitting on the pulpit throughout - and starts to softly play a rhythm that goes with the next song. Gradually, as the sermon comes to a close, others in the group come forward into place, one softly joining on on a tambourine, drum, etc. Immediately after the ending words, guitars etc. launch into "Lord, I lift your name on high," which is then followed by "Christ the Lord is risen today" led by the organ, but then joined by other musical instruments, including rhythm ones). 
    
online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Jeremiah.


 

©2005 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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