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The Great Reversal

August 6, 2006

John 16:33

One of the happiest times at Morningside is the season of Advent. We make many preparations for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. On the first Sunday night of Advent, we have a service here called the Hanging of the Green. I must confess that the first time I heard about that service, I teased the staff, asking them if we were going to hang collards or turnip greens in the Sanctuary. Of course, the Hanging of the Green service is a very reverent and joyful worship experience. As we decorate the sanctuary, we enjoy the beautiful music of Christmas.

One year during the Hanging of the Green service, a young woman visited our church for the first time. She sat near the back of the church under the balcony. At one point in the service, our youth hung garland across the face of the balcony. That procedure went well; but as one of the young people began to hang one of the big plastic golden bells used for accent, he dropped it. It fell to the first floor and hit this first-time visitor right on the top of the head. This visitor, a college student named June Pitts, took the incident in good humor. She was here with her boyfriend, Erik Neely. Little did I know at that point that she would become my daughter-in-law. June’s first experience with Morningside was a large bell hitting her on the head. I have often teased her about that occurrence.

About eight or nine years ago, I performed a wedding in Nashville, Tennessee, for Erik and June. It was a happy occasion, as you can imagine. You know how this story unfolds. You know about Erik’s death. Last Saturday a week ago, I stood in a Methodist church in Nashville, Tennessee, and performed a wedding for June and her new husband, Ian Kern. We have prayed that June would find the person of God’s choosing to be her husband. Ian is an answer to prayer.

That story illustrates a very important point of Scripture, something we read about repeatedly in the pages of the Bible. God is in the business of transformation. He takes the circumstances that are so difficult, so hard, so sorrowful, and transforms them into situations of joy. You must understand, of course, that when we talk about joy, we are not talking about what most people call happiness, depicted by a little yellow smiling face. Happiness is stuck on, external. Real Christian joy is an experience that comes deep within us. It flows from the same spring from which sorrow flows – the heart. Real joy does not depend on external circumstances. Real joy depends on our relationship to Christ. God is in the business of transforming and reversing the hurt, the disappointment, the grief, and the sorrow of life into something that brings us joy.

One of the greatest stories of the Bible is an example of God’s great reversal. Ruth, a young woman, became a widow before she had children. She went with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to live in Bethlehem. There she met her new husband, Boaz. Out of her sorrow and grief, God gave her a new husband. I used that illustration at the wedding for June and Ian. I told June, “Ruth had a child. Her previous in-laws took great delight in that child.” The congregation laughed as you do. When I watched June coming down the aisle at her wedding last Saturday, my eyes welled up with tears, tears of joy. God, in the life of His people, takes the circumstances that break our hearts and transforms those into experiences of joy. Many of you have known the grief of losing a marriage partner. Some have known the joy of a second marriage.

My dad and Ruth recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary. To celebrate, they went to a restaurant in North Carolina. They were holding hands; and when the waitress asked them what the occasion was, Dad answered, “It is our wedding anniversary.” The waitress asked, “How long have you been married?” my dad answered, “One hundred and twelve years.” The waitress did a double-take, and Dad explained his math. “I was married for fifty-eight years. Ruth was married for fifty-one, and we have been married to each other for three. That makes 112 years.” Out of sorrow, the Lord brought joy. Bringing about this wonderful reversal in our lives is one of His best habits.

Jesus came out of the wilderness and returned to his hometown of Nazareth. While there, he went to the synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah, a passage that became a way of identifying the nature of his ministry. Isaiah 61:1-2: “The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve… a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” It is the great reversal. Jesus came to reverse the sorrow and sadness of this life, life pockmarked by sin.

At that Passover meal we know as the Last Supper, Jesus speaks to disciples who are already experiencing sorrow. They can see the shadow of the cross already looming. According to John’s gospel, Jesus enters into a long discourse. He begins by telling the disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). He promises that his Father’s house will have many mansions and that he will return: “that where I am there you may be also.” By Chapter 16, Verse 33, he is talking about joy. He concludes that part of the discourse with a wonderful passage: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus declared this great reversal of turning sadness into joy. He, of course, knew that his darkest hour was still ahead, but he could see beyond that. The book of Hebrews says, “It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross and suffered the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). When we come to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we come to celebrate with joy. We bring here the hurts, the disappointments, the sorrows, and the difficulties of our life. Here we have the hope and possibility that God will yet again bring about this great reversal of his life. This joy derives from the Lord Jesus himself, from our relationship to the Living Christ, the one who has a habit of bringing about this great reversal. We come to the table, and we certainly remember the cross. We remember his death. Even as we remember his suffering, we also remember his victory. No greater reversal than the resurrection exists. When all seemed lost, the Master was crucified; yet he conquered even death itself. Out of sorrow, he brings joy.

I would like to share a wonderful story about Kazmierz Swiatek who grew up in the country of Belarus and became a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1941, the KGB captured him, put him in prison, and sentenced him to death. When the Germans invaded Russia, he was freed for three years; but once the Germans retreated, the KGB again imprisoned him, this time sentencing him to ten years of hard labor in the mining camps of Siberia. As he recalled those experiences, he said that every morning, each prisoner received one small ration of bread for the day before marching off to the mining camps. After ten years, he was released. He resumed his position in the Roman Catholic Church as a priest. He became a bishop, then an archbishop, and shortly before Pope John Paul II died, a cardinal. Now, when this man of devotion sits down to a meal, he takes the bread in his hands, kisses the loaf, and then blesses it. The bread itself symbolizes to him the great reversal. Out of sorrow, the Lord Jesus has brought joy. May it be so for all of us who receive these gifts of God’s grace as we celebrate together the Lord’s meal at the Lord’s Table. Let all who proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord celebrate the meal together.

On the night of his betrayal, the Lord Jesus took bread. He blessed it and broke it. He said, “This bread is my body, broken for you.” Let us have a prayer of blessing for the bread.

Father, as we come before this table, may we acknowledge that you are the Bread of Life. Father, we pray now, that each person who partakes of this bread realizes that this is the body of Christ. Help us remember that we must spread your gospel throughout the land and tell the good news that you came to save us all through Christ’s death and resurrection. We thank you, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

In the cross of Christ, I glory,

Tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time,

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.

Though the woes of life o’ertake me,

Hopes deceive, and fears annoy.

Never shall the cross forsake me;

Lo! It glows with peace and joy.

Jesus said, “This bread is my body. It is broken for you.” Eat this as often as you eat it in remembrance of him. Eat ye all of it. We will have a prayer of blessing now for the cup.

Dear Jesus, as we partake of this cup, we acknowledge you as Lord. We confess our sins, and we are thankful that you loved us enough to die for us. It is our prayer that we will be aware of your presence, your love, your joy, and your peace during this time. In your name, we pray. Amen.

Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,

By the cross are sanctified;

Peace is there that knows no measure,

Joy that thro’ all time abide.

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Drink this as often as you drink it in remembrance of him. Drink ye all of it.

I do not know any life that sorrow has not affected. Ellie Baquiran is here with her newborn baby. The first response that little baby girl had after birth was to cry. Sorrow affects every life, but the good news is that God is in the business of bringing about this great reversal. Out of sorrow, He brings joy. People look everywhere to find that kind of joy. We know the source, the Lord Jesus Christ. He says that we will know his joy and that in us his joy will be complete.

If you have never accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior, you are missing a lot of joy. He is the source of our salvation. We invite you to make that decision today. If you are not a Christian, open your heart to receive the love of Christ. Some of you have other decisions to make. You know beyond any doubt that God has led you to this place, that He wants you to be a member here. He wants you to unite with this body of Christ. If that is a decision you must make, we will gladly welcome you into our fellowship. Morningside is not a perfect church, but it is a good church. Others may have other decisions to make. If that is the case, we invite you to make them. As we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Open My Eyes That I May See,” you respond as God leads.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely


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