Selected Sermons

21 APRIL 2019

Easter Sunday

Sunrise Service at William Taylor UMC

“The Message of the Cross”

Pastor Bill Knobles as guest preacher

Scriptures: Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

1 Corinthians 1:18-25. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not G-d made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of G-d, the world did not know G-d through wisdom, G-d decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of G-d and the wisdom of G-d. For G-d’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and G-d’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women were the early witnesses to the Resurrection according to Luke’s gospel. They came to the tomb early that morning with the spices and ointments they had prepared for Jesus’ body. As a final act of devotion, they would do for him what tradition required. Even though he had died a scandalous death by crucifixion, his body would be treated with respect and love. So, they had prepared the spices and had prepared themselves for what they would find.

But they were not prepared to find an empty tomb.

They were not prepared to find the stone rolled away.

And they were not prepared to find angels saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

And so, they went from being perplexed to being terrified. From being sure that Jesus was dead to trying to figure out what had happened.

Now Peter might have said that the tale was foolish; an idle tale. And he might have thought that the women were delirious, but he got up from his grief. He got up from his shame. He got up from his guilt and he ran to the tomb. And he was amazed at what he found.

And so, we add “amazement” to the list of what they were feeling early that morning.

Perplexed, puzzled, confused, confounded. Then frightened and terrified. And then amazed.

And friends, people receive the message of the cross the same way today. Puzzled, then frightened and then, by grace, amazed. Puzzled because the wisdom of the world says that the story of the cross is foolishness. Frightened because the reality of our sin is terrifying. Amazed because G-d would even consider saving his sinful creatures from judgment.

And so, they look for signs and seek after wisdom. They search after fulfillment and pursue the treasures of this world. And in the end, unless they understand the message of the cross, they will come away empty. Their pursuits wasted.

One thing we might wonder about that first Easter morning was whether the women had wasted the spices they had prepared. Did they waste their money and resources in purchasing the aloes and the myrrh or even the nard used to prepare a body for burial? These items were not cheap, and you opened the containers by breaking them. The contents could not be saved. So, was their preparation wasted? I think not. Because the preparation was a time of devotion. The preparation was a time to consider and think and to pray and to grieve and then to settle into the task that lay ahead.

And G-d honors such devotion. G-d values our intentions. And G-d uses such a task to focus us, orientate us and consecrate us to do his work. As those women prepared the spices, G-d prepared their hearts to receive a message that would otherwise have been foolishness to them.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d. 

And so, it is good and right on this Easter morning to seek understanding of the message of the cross. To prepare ourselves to help others seek that understanding. And to reject the world’s definition of wisdom. But we start with a scandal. Crucifixion was a scandal. The cross was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. It was a symbol of the power of Rome to take a life. It was a sign of the powerlessness of a people to resist Roman law. And it was repugnant to all but the cruelest sensibilities. Indeed, the cross was associated with the horror of an ugly, prolonged death. And it was reserved only for the worst of the criminals and done in a way to humiliate the family and friends of the victim.

People of faith did not wind up on a cross. The religious leaders did not wind up on a cross. And it was foolishness to even suggest that G-d would use such a scandal to redeem his people from their sin.

Foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews.

And so, Paul would write that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d

Paul presents us with these opposing positions between what the world accounts as wisdom and what G-d tells us is truth.

The power of G-d vs. the power of sin.

The power of reconciliation vs. the cancer of division.

The power of justification vs. the ugliness of condemnation.

The power of hope vs. the agony of despair.

The power of love vs. the sickness of hate.

Each of these dynamic, important and lifechanging alternatives wrapped up in the single most powerful proclamation we make.

That we proclaim Christ crucified. That we proclaim the cross is more powerful than our sin. That we proclaim our faith is more powerful that what the world tells us is important.

And which Paul says is the message of the cross. A message so powerful that it separates those of us who are being saved from those who are perishing.

So, what is the wisdom that the world offers? What is the wisdom of the wise? The discernment of the discerning? What are people running after in their fear and their puzzlement?

Some folks listen to the Hollywood celebrities and the New York power brokers to know what to seek and adore. And they tell us that it is ok to cheat on college admissions. That if you have money, it is justified to spread a little around so that your child is a step ahead of the kid who has worked and earned that slot in school.

They tell us that wealth is power. That might makes right. That status is all important. The world tells us that we should idolize celebrities, worship athletes and pay homage to the royally born. The world tells us that it is ok, even more than ok, to claw your way up and use people as your stepping stones.

That world of wisdom puts us in debt. It stretches us beyond our means.

It comes between us and our church. Even between us and our families as we sacrifice for a bunch of stuff that is just going to break anyway.

And, Oh the wisdom the world has for our children. That it is ok to bully.

It is ok to use mean words on social media. That to be popular, you have to dress a certain way, be with certain people or do certain things. And when it all goes bad, some wisdom that is offered by the world to our children is to just take their own lives.

And when we speak out, the world tells us that we ought to keep silent about our faith because we just might offend those with no faith. This is just a bit of the wisdom the world offers. This is what the world wants us to believe.

And when we say that idolatry, infanticide, pride, cheating, coveting, and hating and snarking and judging and mocking and hurting are wrong, we are called foolish. We are called out of touch and old fashioned. We don’t know how things are and how things are done.

Because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d. 

It is the power to redeem.

The power to save.

The power to heal.

The power to love

And it is the power to live.

Not just to exist and chase the worldly pursuits, but to have life and have it abundantly and joyfully.

The message of the cross, the heart of the Gospel, the meaning of the empty tomb, is that G-d loves us so much that he gave his one and only beloved son to die so that we might be saved. The message of the cross stands opposed to the message of the world. And the message of the cross is the only answer to our sin and our way to redemption.

When I read my Bible, I am mindful that it takes only 3 chapters before we get into the business of sin and rebellion against G-d. Actually just 2 chapters and then half of a paragraph. And we fall from G-d’s grace. Sin enters this world. And we are evicted from paradise.

And then in Chapter 4, actually it is only the 2nd paragraph of chapter 4, humankind gets into the murdering business as Cain kills his brother Able.

And so, we have our Bible, that from the very start until the final victory in Revelation, is the epic story of G-d trying to get his kids back. Trying to redeem his sinful, foolish children who had much rather look to the world’s wisdom and our own devices for salvation.

So first, G-d calls his people Israel as a sign of his grace in the fallen world and claims them as his people. He rescues them time and time again. He gives them his law and his love. He gives them land and prosperity. And eventually, they become just as foolish as ever. And so, Lord G-d announces through his prophets that he is coming down here to get his kids back. That he is going to make a way of redemption for them. And that he was going to do so in a way that would never be forgotten. A way that was so shocking that people would know of a love so big, grace so divine, that we would confess our sins, repent and submit to G-d’s will.

And so, the message of the Cross is that Christ died for our sin. Taking our stripes. Restoring our relationship with G-d.

The image of that Old Rugged Cross is a sign of what G-d has done to rescue us once and for all, at least those who are being saved because we have faith in our  G-d. Some folks might say to us that the message of the cross is not as enticing as what the world offers. That the empty tomb is not as compelling as a full bank account. That faith is not as fulfilling, not as certain, as the material things the world gives. That we will never sell the message of the cross in today’s world.

And to that I say, “baloney”. I say that is truly foolishness. Because I have sat with those families who thought they had it all, only to find out that what they had was an illusion of prosperity. I have visited with rich folks who would give all their money for just one day of sobriety. We all have wept with people who found that money could never replace what they have lost. That in the end, it is only the message of the cross, the power of G-d, that offers comfort and peace, joy and life.

Friends, our job as faithful Christians is to be a witness to that message. In how we live, how we act, how we worship and how we love.

And just as that first Easter morning the women prepared to serve Jesus, prepared their devotion to their Christ, we prepare this Easter to go and tell the message of the cross. So that people might not perish, but have everlasting life.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.

But friends, they might be perishing, but they are not gone yet. They might be sinking low, but they are not finished yet. As long as the unrepentant sinner has breath, there is a chance that what seems foolish to them is what will save them.

That what has been rejected will become their cornerstone.

And that they will be saved by the very power of G-d.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And the people said amen.



06 MAR 2019

Ash Wednesday Sermon, First United Methodist Church of Luling

Pastor Bill Knobles

“Desperate Prayers”

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Luke 18:9-14.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. 2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. 2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Luke 18:9-14. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

By 70 A.D. Rome had had quite enough of the rebellious Jews of Israel. There had been battles and skirmishes throughout Judea. Entire Jewish cities had been destroyed and the people killed. And now, the Roman army had laid siege to Jerusalem. They had built ramps up to the walls and put their siege engines into position. Battering rams pounded the gates. Jerusalem did not stand a chance. It was a rout and the panic and killing seemed to be without end. The temple was plundered. All of this was chronicled by Josephus, the Jewish historian in his “Wars of the Jews”. And in the end, Caesar ordered the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem. That no trace of the temple be left. It was to be an object lesson for other provinces with a rebellious streak.

Then, years and years went by. The fighting continued periodically, even as the city was slowly rebuilt. The Romans, Persians, the Jews, the Christians, all loosely wrapped into the Byzantine Empire continued to fuss over the city. But in 636 a.d., the Muslim Caliphate laid siege to Jerusalem and captured the city. They laid claim to Temple Mount and built a mosque where the temple used to stand.

Then came the crusades and the world wars, the creation of the state of Israel and then 1967, the Six Day war when Israel took Jerusalem once again. And the Jews began the excavation of the Western Wall. It was all that was left of their beloved temple. Its probable location had been known for a long time, but years of garbage and junk piling up, haphazard building, had all but buried the wall. Now, it was unearthed and exposed once again.

The Western Wall of Temple Mount is not a wall to keep people in or out. It is simply a retaining wall to create a flat surface for Temple Mount. But it is a holy site to the Jewish people and they come to the wall to pray. In olden times, it was called the Wailing Wall, because the Jewish people came there with their desperate prayers, their cries, their lamentations over the destruction of their Temple. Now, people from all over go to the Western Wall to reverently seek God. To slip their written prayers between the stones. To open themselves to Lord God in a place where they feel that he is near.

Not too far from that wall, Jesus told a parable about two men praying in the temple. One man, a Pharisee, was congratulating himself at how good he was. How generous he was. How faithful he was. How pious he was. The man was self-satisfied, and his prayers were shallow. He asked nothing of God because he believed he had need of nothing from God. He was not convicted by his sin. He felt neither the wrath nor the love of God. He might as well have been standing around the coffee pot chatting with his friends.

But there was another man. A desperate man. A man who knew his sin and it was ever before him. He could not even look up to heaven as he prayed. He felt unworthy and so he prayed away from the others. Tax collectors in Jerusalem were compromised people. They were in league with the Roman tyrants. Their contract was to collect a set amount of taxes for Rome and they could keep any excess. It was a system fraught with abuse. The Romans suspected them, and the Jews hated them. And sometimes, the tax collectors hated themselves. And if they were people of any faith, all they could do was to pray to God for mercy. To repent and plead to God for forgiveness. To try to turn their lives around and extricate themselves from the web of deceit and excess and abuse that they had gotten themselves into.

Such a life was hard to get into and even harder to get out of. It still is. We find ourselves in messes and we wonder how we got in so deep. This season of Lent will be a good time to lay out our prayer life and examine what we find. To see what we have gotten ourselves into.

Among our prayers will be those of praise. Of thanking God and celebrating his goodness. That will probably be a large, orderly stack of prayers right in front.

Over here, we have our prayers, our vows, to serve our God. It is not a real large stack, but the prayers are well intended.

But over here are our prayers of supplication. Our prayers for others. For the neighbor who is fighting cancer. For the child who is wandering. For the friend who is lonely. For the world that is in chaos. For the church that is struggling. This stack is not orderly but is a little scattered. The prayers seem incomplete. Some are even dampened by our tears. Wrinkled by our heartache.

Then, over there is a crumpled mess of prayers for our self. Our hurts. Our shortcomings. Our sins. Our confessions. Our repentance. Our pleas for forgiveness. They are a sodden lump of prayers, anointed by our weeping; baptized by our fears. Some prayers have but a single word of “help!”. On others, there are no words at all. Just a sound of our groaning.

These are our desperate prayers. Prayed while we are under siege. Prayed while our temples are torn down. Prayed while our loved ones are scattered. I think that when God hears our prayers, these are the ones he turns his attention to first. These are the prayers which are like an emergency room. They need some attention now, and not later. We are not distracted when we pray these desperate prayers. No, these hurts have our full attention. These needs are urgent. Our sin is ever before us, accusing us and trying to curse us. These are not prayers for around the coffee pot. These prayers are not for show. These are prayers from the gut, offered to God with trembling hands and on the knees of our hearts.

Paul wrote about such prayers.

In the 8th chapter of Romans, verse 26, he wrote Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

What does God do with our desperate prayers? Jesus said that the tax collector went down to his home justified before God. Justified is a rather curious word here. In common English, it means that a person’s actions are proven right and reasonable and just. But that definition does not hold true here. The sinner is not declared right, but forgiven. In the Christian sense, justification is an act of God. It is an act of God not based on the work of the sinner, but on the work of Jesus on the cross. And it is that work, through our faith in Christ, which is imputed to us. Claimed by us.  Grasped by us and held tightly by us. Received by us through faith. And by which God declares that we are no longer guilty of our sin. We are released from its penalty. And restored as righteous before God. In a right relationship with God.

Some might think, even believe, that it is too late for them. That they are too far gone for forgiveness and restoration. That their desperate prayers cannot be heard by God. And they would be wrong. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart. These are the words of the prophet. Even now. After the sin. After the recriminations. After the heartbreak. Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.

Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing

Even now. That “now” has come in this time of Lent. And the now is the taking of the ashes. Ashes of repentance. I am asking folks, if you were in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, what would be your prayer? There is a prayer wall in the Narthex. Fashioned after the Western Wall, with places to add your prayers. Slips of paper to write on. Cracks and niches to receive them. There is no need to sign your name. They will remain personal to you. I will read them and pray over them. We will do this throughout Lent. Paul said that we should pray without ceasing. So, we will all add prayers, joys, concerns, prayers of celebration, prayers of heartbreak, even desperate prayers all through Lent. But as we prepare for this time of deep prayer in the church, we first take on the ashes of our repentance. (and we continued worship with the litany of the imposition of the ashes.)