Monday, December 12, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – 15–40

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 11, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Matthew 11:2-11 

And when John heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is coming or is there another?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go, announce to John what you hear and see: blind see and lame walk, lepers are made clean and deaf hear and dead are raised and poor are having good news brought to them, and blessed are those who might not be scandalized my me.”

And when they left, Jesus began to say to the crowd concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at: a reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see: a person in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft things are in the houses of the king. But what did you go out to see: a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it has been written: Behold I’m sending my messenger before your face who will make ready your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.”


I hope most of y’all were here last week, because we really had a treat. Abby Cowher played a bunch of Christmas carols during the service, including my personal favorite, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” Now if you weren’t here and still want to listen to her performance, a podcast of this and every service is on the Cove Podbean page. And the address is right in the bulletin.

Anyway, it was a real pleasure to have her here with us, because Abby and I have something in common that I’m not sure anyone here knows. But I can tell you right here and now, it sure has nothing to do with music. As I was told Friday evening, I have no talent. No, the only thing I can play is the radio. You see, what we share is an connection with a sport called cross country. But I want you to notice that I said connection, because Abby is a really talented runner and me, well, not so much. But that didn’t stop me from being the cross country coach at Brewbaker Academy in 1978 and 1979.

Of course, how I became a coach was a little odd, because when it comes to long-distance running, and that’s what cross country is, I don’t have any talent there either. In fact, I was never on any cross country team, although, if you counted the distance I ran between 1978 and 1957, I think there’s at least 3, 3½ miles there. No, I became Brewbaker’s cross country coach because I taught history, and at that school, all history teachers had to coach something. And so I was given cross country, the one sport I think they assumed I couldn’t screw up. But I really didn’t care about why, I was delighted to be the coach, and I use that term in the broadest sense, because it meant my ten month teaching contract was $8,400 instead of just $8,000.

But of course, there was a problem. Since I’d never been a cross country runner, before I became the coach, I needed to learn something about the sport. Of course, I had the coaching part down. It’s running, right? I mean, how hard could it be to coach running? And so every practice, I told my boys to run and to meet me at the Krispy Cream Donut Shop when they were done. I think that’s called giving them motivation. And so I was good with the mechanics. And the rules, man, how hard could they be. Unless they had to hop for a mile or run backwards or something like that, I’d been chased enough to have running down.

It was the scoring that I didn’t know, and yes, there’s scoring to cross country running. You see, when one team runs against another, only the top five on each team count and their score is based on their position vis-à-vis the other five. And so, the one who comes in first gets one point, second, two, third, three all the way down to tenth and he gets ten, with the low score winning. And so, at a two-team meet, the best score you can get is 15 and the worst, 40. In fact, a score of 15-40 is considered a sweep. And in my first year as coach, we were swept at every meet. I guess they were a little too motivated by all those donuts. But at least my boys were clean, because they’d been swept. Not one of them cracked the top five, not once.

And I’ll tell you, I mention all this not just because of Abby Cowher or my lack of talent as a coach. You see, I think Jesus is saying the same kind of thing about us at the end of the passage we just read. Let me explain.

Now do y’all remember what’s going on here? John’s been cooling his heels in prison from before Jesus was baptized, and he sent some of his disciples to find out whether Jesus was the one he’d preached about, you know, the guy with the ax and the winnowing shovel and the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Well, evidently what John had heard about Jesus wasn’t making his heart race, and so he just wanted to know if the real Christ was behind curtain number one or two. And when they came, Jesus simply told them what he’d been doing, you know, healing the blind and the lame and the deaf, cleaning up lepers, raising the dead, and preaching to the poor; which was pretty much want he’d already said that he came to do when he read from Isaiah. And so that’s what Jesus told them and they left. But just so that no one would think he was dissing John, he talked about who John was and what he did and how he was like the one who’d been prophesied. And you know, he kind of brought it home when he said, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist.” Now that’s pretty dramatic, something that anyone would want on their resume. In fact, I remember a minister telling us way back when I was in high school (I was dating his daughter instead of running cross country) that he believed that John the Baptist was the second most important person in human history. High praise, right? I’d hire that man.

But remember, Jesus didn’t stop with how great John was. I mean, after saying that there had never been anyone greater than John, Jesus said, “But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.” Wow. You see, according to Jesus, for as great as John was, all those who are in God’s kingdom, you know, who are under God’s rule, in other words, us; we are all greater than John the Baptist. In other words, if he were running cross country, John would be swept major league, because we’d all finish in front of him.

And even though when you first think about it, that seems kind of ridiculous, it really does make sense. I mean, just compare John and us. Now as it related to the stuff that’s really important, and I’m not talking about either his wardrobe or diet, man, we’d come out ahead. And let me give you three examples of what I’m talking about.

I mean, first, we can understand a whole lot of stuff that never even hoovered for John. But it wasn’t because he was dumb or anything like that. He just didn’t know, because he hadn’t heard. You see, all he had was the Old Testament with all it’s laws and predictions and stories. And from that, he was left to figure out who God was and how he related to him. Now that was John, but I’ll tell you, it’s not us, is it? No sir, I think we can understand a lot more than our friend John. I mean, like him, we can understand God as creator and judge and Lord. But thanks to the coming of Jesus Christ, we can also see this God as Father, and I’m talking about as the one who loves his creation and the one who judges with mercy and compassion and the one who uses his Lordship for the benefit of his children,  and that’s exactly who we are. And unlike John, we can understand God as the Son, the word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. You see, we can understand him in a special way, because he came like one of us, so that we could really get to know him and he could really get to know us. And thanks to the one sent by both the Father and the Son, we can understand God as spirit, but not just any spirit, as Holy Spirit, bringing his presence and his love and his mercy and compassion into our lives 24/7. You see, for John, God was distant and a little harsh. But our understanding of God’s true nature is much deeper and more personal than that. And I think that’s one example of our relative greatness.

And maybe because our understanding is better, second, I also think we’re able to feel things that John couldn’t have felt. My goodness, at best he could look forward with some muted optimism, because the prophets had talked about someone coming sometime in the future, and when he came some good stuff might happen. Now, granted John could feel some of that, but when he looked at his past, man, he had to judge himself based on all the little bitty laws he may have broken. And as he looked around at his world, well, it was a pretty tough place. And he certainly had enough doubt to wonder if Jesus really was the one promised. Now that’s what John felt, but not us. Man, we can feel some things that would have been impossible for John to have felt. Now what I’m about to say, I hope this applies to every one us this morning, and if it doesn’t, I really hope you listen. You see, as we look back at our past, we can feel peace. I mean, unlike John, we’re not counting and grading our sins. Instead, we can look right up to the cross and trust that every one of those sins have been nailed right there. Like Clarence gave to George Baily, we have the chance to start over, fresh and clean. The chains have been broken and the anchors gone. Man, we can feel peace. Just like we can feel real hope as we look into the future. You see, while John had to look forward to something that might happen, we can trust in something that already has. I’m telling you, we can see our future the minute we choose to look into that tomb, and because it was empty, we have a concrete reason to trust that ours will be too. Our hope is more than wishful thinking. And if the combination of peace and hope doesn’t produce joy right now, you are one tough nut to crack. Of course, that wasn’t the case for John. He was too busy ripping into folks, preparing them for the one coming. But since our past has been cleansed and our future secured and since his presence is with us right now, we can feel a sense of joy that I think would have felt strange and inappropriate for John. And that’s another way we’re ahead of him.

And finally, just think about all the things we can do that would have been impossible for John. I mean, he was there preaching by the Jordan River to the folks who’d come out to see him. And although that’s certainly nice, (my goodness, it says everyone from Jerusalem and Judea was there), that still fades in comparison to the opportunities God has given us. My gosh, we’ve got the ability to show compassion to the guy who lives next door as well as kids living in an orphanage on the other side of the world. And we have the ability to share the good news of Jesus Christ to every friend we invite to come with us to church but also to folks in Africa and Asia and Europe  through what we post on the internet, something that may be for us what the Roman roads were for Paul. And we have the ability to reflect God’s love, especially this time of year, by the peace and the hope and the just plain joy we convey through our expressions and our words and our actions. I’ll tell you, we have the ability and the opportunity to do things that would have been unimaginable for John and I think that’s another reason Jesus calls us greater.

And so, using some good cross country images, even though he may have been the fastest human being in his time, we’d sweep him, because in spite of his greatness, we can understand and feel and do things that were beyond him on his best day. And since we’ve come back to cross country, I’ve got to tell you, things changed for me at Brewbaker Academy. Remember how I told you that we were swept in every meet my first year? Well that didn’t happen the next year. Although my natural modesty causes me to feel uncomfortable saying this, in my second year, we had more wins than Brewbaker had had in it’s history. You see, in 1979, we won two meets, because the Brewbaker coach started to take his job seriously and we worked really hard and we started eating only the glazed and not the jelly-filled. But what I think really did the trick was that we scheduled Cape Henry Academy twice and they were really bad. And because of that, 15–40 wasn’t the only score I saw.

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