Hearts Headed Home

The Old Testament is positively littered with prophets: one Biblical commentary listed 45 of them! Even before Israel was formed, God anointed people to speak His authority over Creation. Later, and for millennia, He spoke to his chosen people through his prophets, each of whom delivered promises – and rebukes  – to Israel’s historical, human moment, yes, but equally to God’s eternal plans and vision for his beloved children.  At the very least (which seems to be the way Israel sadly acknowledged God’s prophets) these voices “crying in the wilderness” signaled God’s unwavering presence – his participation - with and through their lives.

They thought things would always be that way – that they would never sense his absence.  But, they had not responded obediently – faithfully - to God’s leading, and so the last OT prophet, Malachi, ends his (the last) book of the OT with what would turn out to be YHWH’s last words … for the next 400 years. “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents.”

For the next 20 generations, God was silent. No messages. No messengers. Nothing. Had God left them? Had He become indifferent to them and to their earthly journey? The opposite of love is not hate, after all; it is indifference, and from the looks of it, God had left them to wander, leaderless and … abandoned. The prophets’ voice had gone from Israel.

Through all those messengers, God’s heart yearned for his people to choose His loving direction, as Isaiah had said: “speaking Home to the hearts of Jerusalem.”[1] The prophets offered God’s message of change …for their renewal. As Jeremiah had declared:  “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” YHWH’s words were always designed to move his children forward - boldly and confidently - into his perfect plans for their (and the world’s) eternal blessing. All they needed to do was to turn their hearts Home, to God alone … for He had never gone anywhere.    

On this, the first Sunday in over two decades that Good Shepherd is without a rector, I believe it is no coincidence that we have the readings we have today. I also believe we have the exact encouragement we need for our journey, in today’s Gospel. I cannot imagine a more hopeful and specific message from God to us today.

After 20+ years of Fr. Tom’s faithful ministry among us, many of you have never known any other rector. Tom baptized you – and then, for some, even baptized your children. He married you, and perhaps even buried some of your loved ones. He taught you, encouraged you, lead you, cajoled you – with great wisdom and prayerful dedication – all to the work of God in this parish. Fr. Tom was our own beloved prophet-of-God here… and after over 2 decades, his ministry is completed … and we all (on some level) wonder what our spiritual journey – and leadership – will be now that he has retired.

But, look at what the Gospel tells us today! At just the right moment, in God’s perfect timing …  just as Malachi had prophesied and God had promised … John the Baptist shows up – every bit the prophet Elijah – wearing Elijah’s clothes, and eating Elijah’s foods and living in Elijah’s wilderness. And this new Elijah brings a new Word for their hearts - from their God!

The Lord had not left them! Even in His apparent absence, He was preparing something new; and God’s Word through John the Baptizer was charged with power and vitality – with a dynamism that penetrated not just their ears and minds, but their hearts … that place where people feel and deliberate and act. John’s Words – and the events of this day 2,000+ years ago - sparkled with Hope and new life, prompting them to respond to their moment – of conviction and repentance, yes, but to something even more fundamental than that, I believe.

For, even before any declaration of repentance, John’s message had to kindle in his followers the heart-desire to grow and to change.  The seed for repentance (or any growth, really) is the heart-willingness to embrace some change … and move ahead with confidence in God’s work revealed in that change. As Rev. Dr. John Claypool wrote: “The success of John (the Baptist’s) ministry represented the victory of growth over fear, progress over inertia. …(T)he most important single reality in the human equation (is) a desire to grow. … (T)his is the one thing we humans bring to the process of creation.”[2]

But, the truth is that most of us are deeply ambivalent about change. On the one hand, we want to develop and expand and mature; humans are not by nature static creatures. There is the spark of adventure along new paths; new possibilities ignite our creative engagement and hope. What wonders might we dream!  What opportunities lie ahead for us if we will but embrace this, our moment, in the long history of Good Shepherd church - as God’s own call to us - directly back to the Heart and Will of God!

Yet, at the same time, there is a part of us that recoils and resists change. So it is that, before the repentance John speaks of (or of any real spiritual growth for that matter), there must be an internal shift of the soul and heart – a turn away from our pride (that shuns the audacity that I could change a few things in me); the taking of a stand beyond our shame (that senses some deficit within us as we are right now.) There must be a move against the smallness of our fears (in the shadow of the hugeness of our Lord) – that opens the way for God’s next redeeming, glorious work in us!

That’s at least part of what John’s baptism of repentance in the river Jordan is all about. On at least one level, it’s about the people’s willingness to face – become awash with - the change the Lord wants them to make – a change that connects them anew with their God.

And … if in their fears, or their pride, or their shame … they find they feel anxious or impatient or cynical or despondent … and even if the clay feet of wearying inertia dulls their hearts to growth… all they need do is turn their gaze … just down the river to the One who’s stepped into the current with them: Jesus, their Savior. Saturated (not as they were, with sin) but with the Joy and Blessing and Power of God, leads Jesus, God’s proclaimed Son, who has, wonder of wonders, joined Himself to our journey … as the provider of our only way Home to God.

Beloved, this is where we are right now; we are facing change, and must choose how to embrace and best use it – to our benefit and God’s Glory.

So, on a practical level, what does this mean – in action – for us here today as Good Shepherd begins to prepare the way for her new rector? First and foremost, I believe, this is a time for prayerful listening. To that end, we will include in our corporate worship the prayer for Good Shepherd’s search we just offered at the conclusion of the Prayers of the People. I have made additional copies of this prayer and placed them on the table in the Narthex. If we run out (and I pray we do!) we’ll happily make more. I urge you to take a copy and add it (or some other prayer) to your daily devotions. And then … listen for God’s leading as you pray. Expect God’s leading; He will bring your soul to Wonder!

Additionally, Chip, your Sr. Warden, and I understand this time without a rector to be a unique opportunity to hear as many different Celebrant voices as possible. It is only by hearing various preaching styles and theological perspectives that you will begin to discern the kind of voice that will best lead the next phase of Good Shepherd’s journey. Next week, Canon Tim Nunez, will preach and celebrate while Dickie and I visit our daughter for her 30th birthday.

Finally, as you pray, and as you experience a wide range of celebrants and preachers over the next few months, ask the Lord what He would have you do as your particular ministry and engagement in this time of our family transition. Are you wondering if you should offer a Wednesday night dinner, or volunteer to answer the phones for Lisa in the office?  There is much to be done in a short period of time, and (thanks be to God) this vibrant, healthy church is full of opportunities to serve her future, both within and outside the boundaries of this campus. Ask the Lord, prayerfully, how he wants to use you – even you – in His grand plan for Good Shepherd!

And so, dear family of God, today we begin a time of great anticipation and Hope for Christ’s Church of the Good Shepherd. We will see wonders! We can already sense God’s intimate presence through our time splashing around in the uncertain currents of change. But, we can be sure, as we pray, serve and stay faithful, that we are on the path that God our Father desires for us, and that God the Son walks with us, and that God the Holy Spirit will unfold before us. For it is all to lead us into an ever more profound and holy place – our lives saturated with renewed Joy – heading Home anewthorough Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit  … Home …to God alone.

What wonders you will see! What stories you will have to tell! What Grace you will experience! And God will surely shed His light and declare it Good indeed!

Thanks be to God!











[1] Isaiah 40:2  Hebrew transliteration “speak to the heart of Jerusalem”

[2] Claypool, John. The Light Within You p. 152