By Pat Russell
Considering the sermon by Mike Banta entitled, Higher Up and Further In!", on December 27, 2020
To conclude this Advent Season, we celebrated the Arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ this past Sunday. Mike took the Word and this painting and led us “Higher Up and Further In!” So today, we go THAT direction – up and into the heart of God.
Mike has been gracious to grant us a second reading of his sermon script for meditation. This is what I urge you to do; you will be blessed. First, set aside enough time for slow meditation. Ponder this painting. Then re-read the scripture passage. Following that, slowly read Mike’s sermon. (Maybe you will even want to run a copy before you read.) As you read, note the words and thoughts that touch your heart. Underline them, dwell on them because “Wait, there’s more!” May your vision for the future be renewed as you read and pray. Amen.
Jesus Presented in the Temple
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
”Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Isreal.”
The Child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Higher Up, Further In, Mike Banta, Dec 27, 2020
Well, here we are! One of the greatest events in memory has finally come to pass. We can celebrate in joy and relief, because that which was much anticipated and for which we have had much expectation has taken place. This season has come to its conclusion. You all know what I’m talking about – this is the FINAL Sunday of 2020. We have made it through this tumultous year!
While I think most of us are pretty happy to see the end of this year, that’s not truly what I wish to proclaim. It is instead the birth of Jesus that we have celebrated in the last few weeks and days. The Son of God is now incarnate – in the flesh – among all of us in the world. The amazing miracle of God becoming a human being to live with us has happened.
We have spent the season of Advent in expectation of the Kingdom of God – that Jesus would come. In the passage Marilyn read today, Simeon is an old man who spent much of his life in the temple in Jerusalem. Simeon has patiently waited for years, and he has finally seen his hope come true, his expectation fully realized. As God had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the Christ, he can now depart – die – in peace.
So there is already one thing that we can learn from this story. It is that the Holy Spirit places expectation for the Kingdom of God in our hearts, like he did with Simeon. And regardless of how long we must wait, we can be confident that we will see the Kingdom of God come to pass as we have been caused to expect.
Simeon’s story is now done – his expectation is complete. But even as his expectation comes to pass, he speaks much like the late night TV hawker of gizmos and gadgets: “But wait – there’s more!” Simeon speaks of Jesus as God’s salvation. He will also be the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel.
Simeon then goes on to speak of the future ministry of Jesus – that he is appointed for the rise and fall of many, and a sign to be opposed. Jesus certainly was that during the time of his active ministry – he challenged the ultra-religious Jews and by the end was opposed even by the Roman government. When it comes to the rise and fall of many, Pilate is a great example. Soon after his reluctant judgment of Jesus, he was removed from office for a failure to put down a rebellion. He was sent back to Rome to answer to the Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius died before Pilate arrived, and little is known about what happened to Pilate afterward. There are even some early Christian sources that claim that Pilate became a Christian, and perhaps even a martyr.
Simeon also says that the thoughts of many would be revealed. This is certainly true of the Pharisees and other religious figures who opposed Jesus, and whose hate and hypocrisy were laid bare by Jesus, who even called them “whitewashed tombs”.
So as Simeon’s prophecies are made at the conclusion of one expectation coming to pass, it becomes clear that there is a second thing that we can learn from this story. It is that when expectation of the Kingdom of God comes to pass, we get – more expectation! Simeon and Anna in this passage set the stage for the coming ministry of Jesus. There is yet more to come in the Kingdom of God.
And yet it is not all roses and butterflies – sorrow too plays a role. As long as we live out the Kingdom in this world, we will have troubles. Simeon tells Mary that a sword would even pierce her own soul. We know from the gospel of John that Mary was present at the crucifixion. What terror and sadness she as a mother must have experienced as she witnessed her first born Son tortured to death!
I put a picture of the Pieta, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, in the sermon handout. It poignantly captures both the love and the sorrow of Mary at the loss of her son. I remember when this marvelous work of art was loaned to the New York world’s fair in the mid 1960’s. My family and I traversed the moving walkway that allowed us to view this in person. Even though I was only eight or nine years old, Michelangelo’s statue made an indelible imprint on my mind.
Too many of us have experienced terrible sorrow. For some, much like Mary, we have watched our own children fall onto terrible times, losing some to health issues, or having to witness their downfall due to addiction or other temptations. Even in the last two years so many of us have lost dear family members and friends – some to the insidious virus that has encircled the world, others to age and disease.
There are other bumps in the road. In today’s passage from Luke, Anna speaks of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Yet that city was utterly destroyed by the Romans about seventy years later. While it lay bare for many years, we of course know today that Jerusalem has risen from the ashes and is a beacon of hope to much of the world.
So where are we? Well, so far, the Kingdom of God has appeared on earth in the incarnate Person of Jesus. He has been born in Bethlehem.
But wait – there’s more!
This is a truth of God’s Kingdom – when hope and expectation are realized, God brings new hope and expectation. Jesus being born is not the end of the story. In fact, His birth is yet another beginning in the Kingdom of God.
As our passage today concludes, Luke tells us that Jesus grew in strength and wisdom and had the grace of God on Him. When he reaches about thirty years of age, he begins his ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
But wait – there’s more!
Jesus, while speaking to the woman at the well, says that “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father is spirit and truth.” The Kingdom of God is not just coming, it has arrived!
We know the story of Jesus’ ministry and that the religious and political leadership of the time rose up against him and killed him. He was lain in a tomb.
But wait – there’s more!
In Easter, we find another expectation realized – Christ is resurrected from the dead and becomes the firstborn of us all. All of us can follow in His footsteps to new and eternal life. From incarnation to resurrection, Jesus has birthed the Kingdom of God among us in a mighty way. He became human, experienced everything we do, every temptation, every sorrow. The shortest verse in the Bible is – “Jesus wept”. He suffered the worst that this broken world could bring – the humiliation of multiple trials, the torment of the soldiers, the ignominy of the march to Golgotha, and the horrific pain and torture of the cross. Even as we must do at some point, He gave up his life, and He died. But as some preachers might put it – Sunday’s coming! The resurrection of Christ from the dead brings new expectation and hope to every one of us, that as citizens of the Kingdom of God we can look forward beyond even death to greater joy.
But wait – there’s more!
For two thousand years the church has attempted to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom of God on earth – sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse – much worse. Human evil has even found its way into the church. We all know of the terrible failings of the church through the ages – the slaughter of the Crusades, the tortures of the Inquisition, the infighting and persecution of different sects and Christian groups by other Christians. We have the result of literally thousands of different denominations within the church.
Yet also much transformative good has come into the world because of the church. Christians are responsible for hospitals and health care around the world. You may know that I have spent much time in India, where most people are Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh. Christians are a minority. Yet as you look across the skylines of major cities in India, almost every hospital has been founded by a Christian denomination.
Christians have followed Christ in martyrdom throughout history, even in today’s world as we watch the Chinese church go underground, as in many other countries. Yet these believers continue to spread the good news of Christ, to bring hope to the entire world.
Even at the very beginning of the church we see how the Kingdom expands. Only Jews were in the church to start, yet God made clear that the Gentiles, all peoples are to share in the gifts and glory of Christ. All can become adopted sons and daughters of the King, and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Wow – yet another of Simeon’s prophesies comes true!
And we have been given the privilege to be ambassadors of the Kingdom to the entire earth. As we house ourselves within the living, active and present Kingdom of God, we become its representatives to all we see. It happens among us here in our little church – where we share love, family and joy with each other. It happens in our neighborhoods, communities and towns. And even as we give to aid everything from The Denver Street School which works to rescue at risk kids, to the Network Coffeehouse downtown to give comfort to the homeless, to support of orphans in Zimbabwe, we are spreading the effects of the Kingdom of God. Even in this church, this group of something over a hundred people, there are some of us who have traveled to other nations around the world as ambassadors of the kingdom. Europe, China, India, Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, we have among us those who have personally carried the promise and the reality of the Kingdom with them to such far flung places. Wow! Isn’t the Kingdom of God amazing!
But wait – there’s more!
We have been given a promise that Christ will return, and that when He does, He will remake the world into a place no longer marred by the powers of sin and death. Christ will take his rightful place as King, and the Kingdom of God will come to full fruition on earth, as it has always meant to be. Humanity will finally be able to enjoy our beautiful world without flaw, as God first created it. We will take our role as caretakers of the earth in a new way, no longer contending with the evil that distorts all we see around us today.
But wait – there’s more!
We have an expectation of Heaven. We will have the ultimate joy of living in the presence of God forever. All tears and sorrows will be gone. We will be surrounded by all those we love.
But even as CS Lewis might say – don’t wait, for there is more. Even the experience of heaven will be rich with explosions of new joys and wonders at every moment. I’ve put an excerpt from Lewis’s fantasy book “The Last Battle” in the sermon handout. For those of you not familiar with this book, it is the last book of a seven-book series entitled the Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps the most famous book from the series is “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”. If you have not read this series, I encourage you to do so. If you have, I encourage you to read it again, and perhaps share it with your children and grandchildren. Lewis has painted a wonderful picture of the love and majesty of Christ, portrayed as the great lion Aslan.
For those of you who have not read the books, I will try not to create more story spoilers than I have to. The scene from which I have excerpted for you is an account of the experience of Heaven by the primary characters in the book. Some of them are human, others are talking animals. The passage portrays how they go from wonder to wonder, from joy to joy:
A long valley opened ahead and great snow-mountains, now much nearer, stood up against the sky.
“Further up and further in,” cried Jewel and instantly they were off again.
So they ran faster, faster and faster till it was more like flying than running, and even the Eagle overhead was going no faster than they. And they went through winding valley after winding valley and up the steep sides of hills and, faster than ever, down the other sides, following the river and sometimes crossing it and skimming across mountain-lakes as if they were living speedboats, till at last at the far end of one long lake, which looked as blue as a turquoise, they saw a smooth green hill. Its sides were as steep as the sides of a pyramid and on the very top of it ran a green wall: but above the wall rose the branches of trees, whose leaves looked like silver and their fruit like gold.
“Further up and further in!” roared the Unicorn, and no one held back. They charged straight at the foot of the hill and then found themselves running up it almost as water from a broken wave runs up a rock out at the point of some bay. Though the slope was nearly as steep as the roof of a house and the grass was smooth as a bowling green, no one slipped. Only when they had reached the very top did they slow up, that was because they found themselves facing great golden gates. And for a moment none of them was bold enough to try if the gates would open.
But while they were standing thus a great horn, wonderfully loud and sweet, blew from somewhere inside that walled garden and the gates swung open.
So I have changed Lewis’s exclamation slightly, as the title of this message says: Higher up, further in! This is what expectation of the Kingdom of God truly means. From its humble beginnings in the birth of Jesus in a rude barn, to greater and greater joys and wonders, The Kingdom is an adventure where God unfolds his purposes among us. And His purpose is to love all, save all, entrance all, and savor deep relationship with us all.
As we receive the joy of the Kingdom in our lives, we can confidently expect that we too will transverse from joy to greater joy. Like the late night TV salesman, we too will say, “But wait – there’s more!”, with wonder in our eyes and ecstasy in our hearts.
Yes, the Kingdom of God currently resides alongside a broken and bent world. And therefore we can be sure that we will know suffering. But this is temporary. Every trial, every hurt is ultimately washed away by the overwhelming stream of the Kingdom, like a mighty river breaking down and rolling boulders away.
So we are now citizens of the Kingdom. I hope you will continue in expectation, in hope, and in confidence. What Christmas has taught us is that the Kingdom has come, humbly, into the world. From there it grows greater and greater without end.
We as a church treasure the process of spiritual growth. We hold as a deep value the process of becoming more aligned with the mind of Christ and the purposes of God. And so I hope and pray that you will continue to grow with the Kingdom, forever engaging with its continuous and expanding wonders and joys. Let your heart continuously shout out in joy: – Higher up! Further in!
HIGHER UP! FURTHER IN!
Pray with me:
Dear Father, thank you that we can have confidence in your purposes, as we can see in your unfolding Kingdom. May we never cease to revel in its wonders and joys. In Jesus Name, Amen.