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Hidden in Plain View

January 2, 2011
Sermon: Hidden in Plain View
Text: Luke 17:21

What’s so new about the New Year?  It occurs to me that all of us have to get used to writing 2011 on our checks.  We have to flip over a page of the calendar, but we continue our lives pretty much as usual beyond that.  For those of us who are Christians, we see a new year as an opportunity to make some important decisions.  Sometimes people call those decisions “resolutions.”  I am not sure that the word “resolution” is the best choice.  Deciding again that we really do want to live our lives in the way Christ has called us to live is more like an act of consecration.

On the third Thursday of every month, a group of pastors gets together at the Chinese restaurant and enjoys a meal together.  This group – composed of about four Methodists, two Presbyterians, a Lutheran, three Episcopalians, several Baptists, and one rabbi – acts as a kind of support group.  We meet at New China because of the dietary restrictions of the Jewish faith and because Chinese food seems to be compatible with all members.

Do you know what we talk about?  We talk about our congregations, about those who cause us headaches.  I do not mention any of you, but the other pastors have some members in their churches that cause them headaches.  When I leave the restaurant, I always feel grateful for Morningside.  I am so grateful to be the pastor of this congregation.

The group often shares stories, and my friend Rabbi Liebrowitz shared one that caused me to start thinking about using his story as a sermon illustration.  When I told the other pastors my plan, they, too, confessed that they had had the same thought.  We decided that at some point during the course of 2011, every single one of us would incorporate this story into a sermon.  We also decided that we would then compile a volume that contained those sermons, a volume that showed various viewpoints about this story from different denominations.  The title of the book would possibly be The Gospel according to the Leaf Blower or maybe The Gospel according to the Rabbi’s Leaf Blower.

Before the weather started getting so cold, the rabbi said to his oldest daughter, “I’ve noticed that our carport is filling up with leaves.  It’s time to get the leaf blower out and blow these leaves out to the street so they can get picked up.”  The daughter agreed; she was willing to help.

The rabbi went on to the temple while his daughter stayed home to use the blower to clear the leaves.  When Rabbi Liebrowitz returned home, he saw that the job had not been completed.  When he began talking to his daughter, she appeared very frustrated.  It soon became evident that she was not very familiar with this task of blowing leaves.

She said, “I turned it on, but I just couldn’t get it to generate much wind.”  The rabbi went out to determine the problem.  It turns out that she was trying to use the pressure washer to blow the leaves to the road.  That equipment just did not work at all.

The rabbi explained to his daughter, “Well, we have the wrong machine here.  We need to get the leaf blower.”

They began searching high and low but could not find the blower.  Tired of hunting, the rabbi said, “Well, I’m just going to buy another one.”

He went to one of the big box stores and bought another blower.  When he returned home, he found that his daughter had left.  He started using the new blower to remove the leaves from his carport.

The last place to clear was the back corner where a particularly stubborn pile of leaves rested.  When he started blowing those leaves, a tell-tale orange handle appeared.  The original leaf blower had been buried beneath the pile of leaves.

Now, how does that story relate to the New Year?  How does it connect with the Lord’s Supper?   I want to share two ideas that have merit after we consider the Scripture that serves as our text today, Luke 17:21:  “Do not say, ‘Lo, it is here’ or ‘Lo, it is there.’  Behold the kingdom of God is within you.”  A second translation of the last part of that verse is “Behold the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Either translation is permissible, according the Greek.  This verse seems to be very significant, but it is one that I am not sure we understand very well.  I find myself wishing I could ask Jesus to explain his comment in more detail.

Jesus’ response followed a question asked by the Pharisees:  “When are we going to see the kingdom?”  The Pharisees probably had in mind a royal carnation.  They were essentially asking, “When are we going to see the new king on the throne?  When are we going to have these Romans out of our way so that we can get back to the kingdom of David, get back to Judaism as we have always admired it?  When are we going to be able to return to the old ways?”

Jesus answered their question by saying, “You are looking in the wrong place.  In fact, you aren’t going to see it by looking at all.  The kingdom of God is not here or there.  It is in your presence.  It is within you.  The kingdom of God is within your midst.”

Jesus often responded to the tricky questions of the Pharisees by asking a question of his own.  In this case, however, he responded with, “The kingdom of God is within you,” a statement that puzzled those religious leaders.  That statement has also puzzled other people ever since.

I first really encountered and thought seriously about this verse when I was at Furman University.  Dr. Theron Price, the teacher of the religion class entitled Classics of Christian Devotion, required that we read The Kingdom of God Is within You, by Count Leo Tolstoy.  Tolstoy, also the author of War and Peace, uses many words to express himself.  The point Tolstoy makes about this passage in The Kingdom of God Is within You is that we are to be people of non-violence; our response to any kind of aggression is passive resistance, passive non-violence.  Tolstoy’s writings affected people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  I believe Tolstoy, a Christian, uses this passage to push his own agenda.

In speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus possibly meant, “Listen.  You can wait.  You can look.    You can anticipate.  You can think you know how this kingdom will look.  Pay attention though.  The kingdom of God is right here.  Here I am.  I am the King of Kings, Lord of Lords.  The kingdom of God has already come.”

At Christmastime, we celebrate the coming of the King, the coming of the Christ-child into the world.  We acknowledge that that child is the King that had been promised.  He did not come in the way that people expected, but he came nonetheless.  He came to change the way we live this life.

This morning, we prayed through song an important prayer:  “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  That prayer gives to us some insight when we connect it to Jesus’ statement here about our responsibility.  Jesus is saying, “Look, I am the King, so the kingdom of God is in your midst.  The kingdom has already come.  The kingdom is here.”

Jesus’ statement is not quite complete.  Jesus could have also added, “The kingdom of God is also on its way” or “The kingdom is coming, but not quite yet.  The kingdom is partially here but not completely here.  Continue to expect that kingdom to be fulfilled in your midst.”  Theologically, the big word for that is “eschatology” or maybe we should say “realized eschatology.”  Jesus is the King.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we see in these elements that the very presence of Jesus is hidden in plain view. His presence is like the leaf blower hidden underneath a pile of leaves.  Right there it is.  There is the evidence that Jesus is here.  What did he say?  “Whenever you take this bread, whenever you drink this cup, you do this as a way to remember me.  Taking these elements is a way to acknowledge that I am with you, to acknowledge that I am in your presence.”

Consider a second meaning of Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question.  The kingdom of God is in our midst, but it is also true that the kingdom of God is within each one of us.  We are the church.  Paul said, “For me to live is Christ…” (Philippians 1:21).  We are to live as people who are different because of our relationship with Christ, because of the indwelling of Christ, the indwelling of his Spirit.  We live as people who are different.

We have much to fear as we enter this New Year. We fear both a terrible economy that affects the whole world and a prevalence of terrorism around the world.  We have much to fear, but the words of Martin Luther and his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” gives me comfort:  “And though this world, with devils filled, would threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”  It is through us that God will realize the ultimate victory over sin and death that began in Christ Jesus.

Christ has given us the Great Commission.  We are the ones now who are the bearers of Christ.  We are the ones that are to take the kingdom of God into all of the world.  When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are making a prayer of consecration.  We are saying to God, “I want Your kingdom to come on earth, and I want to be a part of it.  I want to be one of the agents of change.  I want to be one of the vessels that contain part of the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said, “Do not say, ‘Lo, it is here’ or ‘Lo, it is there.’  Behold the kingdom of God is within you.”  What does that mean for us?  If the kingdom of God is within us, how then are we to live?

I read the works of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a Hasidic rabbi, a long time ago.  One of his stories about a village in Africa is indelibly etched on my mind.  A village that was agricultural in nature grew and harvested wheat every year.  They would store the year’s harvest in a new hut they had built.

All was well until a neighboring tribe came to the village under the cover of darkness one year just after the new crop of wheat had been harvested.  This war-like tribe poisoned that wheat with an herb.  The poison was not lethal, but it would cause any who ate the wheat to go insane.  The situation was quite a dilemma for the village.  The elders met and talked about how to resolve this problem of living on this supply contaminated grain.

Realizing that they had a small amount of grain left over from the previous year’s harvest, grain that had not been poisoned, the elders came up with a plan.  They decided to set aside a small group of people who were particularly virtuous, people who were dependable and trustworthy.  They told those few, “We want you to eat this grain that has not been contaminated.  The rest of us who eat the contaminated grain will all go insane.  Your job for the coming year is to keep reminding us that we are crazy.”

The church has the same task.  Let me explain.  As Christians, we must live on a different diet.  We cannot eat, or consume, all the poison that the world devours, all the contaminants of life.  Let me suggest to you that we have to put those aside and live on a different diet.  We are to have the kind of diet that causes us to say, as Paul did, “For me to live is Christ…”  We are to say, “I want to live in a way that is different from the world.  I want to make this New Year a time of consecration, a time in which I say, ‘Lord, I am giving myself to you.’”  The kingdom of God is within us, and God is counting on the fact that we will be an agent that brings His kingdom to earth.

As we take the Supper together, we see here the very presence of Christ in our midst.  Taking the Supper together becomes a time of consecration, a time in which we make a recommitment to our God and to our Savior.

I remind you that this is not a Baptist table.  This is not Morningside’s table.  This is the Lord’s Table.  All who profess Jesus Christ as Lord are invited to partake in this Supper.  Let’s take the Supper together.

On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread.  He blessed and broke it.  He said, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Let’s have a prayer of blessing for the bread.

Dear heavenly Father, as we take this bread, we are reminded of the sacrifice that You made for each and every one of us.  We thank You for Your love and grace.  Here and now, we rededicate our lives to You.  We want You to know, dear heavenly Father, that we love You.  We are Your servants.  You are our God.  We lift Your name above all other names.  In the precious name of Your Son, our Risen Savior, we pray.  Amen.

Here is a prayer that I use for the New Year:  “Take my life, and let me be, Consecrated, Lord, to Thee; Take my hands and let them move At the impulse of Thy love.”

Jesus said, “This bread is my body, given for you.”  Eat this as often as you eat it in remembrance of him.  Eat all of it.

We will have a prayer of blessing for the cup.

Dear heavenly Father, You were willing to give Your Son on our behalf.  We come now at this time of remembrance of him and his shed blood.  We pray that as we begin this New Year, we will remember what he has done for us throughout the entire year.  Bless this cup so that our bodies may be useful instruments.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

My prayer for the New Year continues with lines that are the hardest for me:  “Take my will, and make it Thine, It shall be no longer mine; Take my moments and my days.  Let them flow in ceaseless praise.”

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

When I come to this Table, especially at this time of year, taking the Lord’s Supper becomes an act of rededication for me.  It has been that way this morning.  It may be that that is true in your life.  You can rededicate your heart right where you are.  Just bow your head and quietly say to the Lord, “I want this year to be a year that I live for you.”  It may be that you have gone a long way away from him.  If you have been a Christian for a long time, but you have strayed far away, simply want to say, “Lord, I am coming home.  I am coming home as an act of rededication.”  Some of you may have other decisions to make.  Perhaps you need to accept Christ as your Savior. Begin the New Year with a resolution, a consecration, to give your life to Jesus.  We welcome whatever decision God has laid on your heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2011


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