The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury
March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent
PRAYER OF PREPARATION
God of the lost, the least, and all who long for home, when we wander from your ways and waste the gifts you have given us, welcome us back, we pray, so that we may celebrate and rejoice in your presence forever; through Jesus Christ your beloved Son. Amen.
PRELUDE “Wondrous Love “ Dinde
CALL TO WORSHIP (from Psalm 107)
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those God redeemed from trouble.
God gathers us from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.
Let us thank the Lord for God’s steadfast love, for God’s wonderful works to humankind.
CALL TO RECONCILIATION
Christ has lifted up our brokenness so that we might see the wounds of the world. In the light of Christ, we can find healing and mercy. Let us confess our sin before our merciful and healing God.
PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS
O God, you have set before us our greed, our hatred and self-hatred, our fear and our apathy. You have also shown us the injustice and tyrannies of our public life. We have succumbed to paralyzing anxiety in response to injustice. We have resisted the prompting of your Spirit who nudges us out of self-absorption. Empower us by your Spirit to be attentive and discerning partners in healing your creation. Amen.
Silence is observed
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
God’s healing mercy abounds. God’s grace goes before us, after us, through us — sometimes even unbeknownst to us. Friends, hear the good of the gospel:
We are forgiven and restored to right paths of justice and shalom. Thanks be to God!
PASSING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST
Our peace comes from knowing how much God loves us in Jesus Christ. With God’s help, we try to love and forgive one another as Christ loves and forgives us.
“The peace of Christ be with you,”
“And also with you.”
ANTHEM “Sweet Hour of Prayer” arr. Rentz
(all children will remain in the sanctuary)
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Pour out your Spirit to us to open our hearts, so that we may discern your Word in and through the words that we are about to hear. Show us your way in Christ. Amen.
SCRIPTURE 1 Peter 1:6-9
6 In this you rejoice,[a] even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen[b] him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
SERMON “I Can’t Believe in a God who Would…” Rev. Dr. Philip W. Oehler, Sr.
On January 12, 2010, Odinel, a mother of six, was preparing rice and beans for her family’s dinner. One of her children was playing outside while the rest were inside their ground floor apartment doing homework and playing. One moment, it was a day like every other day—the next moment, the world itself shook with great convulsions, bringing the six-story building crashing down upon them in a few moments of chaos. Stunned and confused, Odinel was incredibly able to compose herself and dig herself free, but she feared the fate of her five children who had been inside with her:
“I was screaming out for the children as I threw pieces of concrete off me but heard nothing. I could see layers of concrete lying on the spot where [they] had been doing homework. I was sure they were dead.”
The silence Odinel faced was deafening. She could never move that kind of concrete rubble by herself, and with everyone else scrambling for their own survival, this mother faced the harsh reality that her children were dead or very soon to be. In a matter of moments, five of her precious children were violently snatched from her motherly embrace.
The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital city and killed an estimated 230,000 people has once again left our world staring into the abyss. The reality is that this world is a dark, dark place. When we aren’t entertaining and distracting ourselves with all kinds of frivolity, we are pressed by the brutality of this world on so many different sides. From everyday struggles and frustrations to wars to terrorist attacks to natural disasters to broken families to lost jobs to tragic car accidents to long battles against disease. In these moments we come face to face with our utter helplessness. We cry out for help—to anyone! —looking for answers. And we especially pray to God, time after time. But what do our cries get? Often the same thing that Jesus got—silence.
How many Christians have prayed to be delivered from the clutches of cancer or another terrible illness to no avail?
Sure, one or two make it against the odds, but what about the rest?
How often do people cry to God over failed relationships?
How many people cry out of the despair of unemployment?
Does God ever hear us? Is he even real?
Did he ignore the cries of the 230,000 people who were killed in Haiti’s earthquake? Is God dead?
As the dark clouds swirled over the head of Jesus, he faced his greatest trial—everything he stood for hung in the balance. In a matter of hours, he would be dead, and already he had been shamed, humiliated, and discredited. Everyone around Jesus had reason to abandon faith because the pressure to despair was immense.
What good was it for him to patiently wait any longer?
What could he possibly be waiting for as death reached out to embrace him?
How could this be the arrival of God’s kingdom that he had so forcefully preached?
How could he be the Messiah and long-awaited King of Israel? Had he been mistaken? Now was the time to own up to that! Now was the time to give up! No one could fault him for it! But stubbornly, defiantly, Jesus pressed onward. He did the unthinkable—he resolved himself to patiently wait on his Father in heaven. He refused to give up his hope that God’s kingdom was at hand. He did not fight to bring himself down from that cross. He did not call on an army of angels to intervene. He did not curse God. Foolishly, some mocker would say, Jesus threw himself into the hands of his God. Foolishly, a scoffer would ridicule, Jesus continued to bless and love those who stood against him. Following the way of love, he persisted till the end and refused to back down. He would not be deterred; he threw himself headlong into the destructive path of death itself. And to the despair of those who stayed and watched, death did not yield—it pushed forward unwaveringly, crushing this Jesus under its feet.
Under six stories of broken building, seven-year-old Kiki, his ten-year-old sister Sabrina, and their little brother were buried alive. Tucked away in a small pocket in the concrete rubble with the corpses of their other two siblings, these three had amazingly been spared from a crushing death. But now they were trapped—alone, hungry, thirsty, and weak. The days passed and there was no sign that rescue would come—they heard no one calling out for them or digging to set them free. Kiki and Sabrina’s little brother cried out to them, begging for water. Powerlessly they were unable to satisfy his need. He asked for water on Wednesday…on Thursday…on Friday. But they had no water—they were helpless to save him. Fatigued and dehydrated, he died of thirst in their arms. Surrounded by the decaying bodies of their brothers and sisters, Kiki and Sabrina clung to each other and waited. Though it would have been easy to simply surrender in despair, slipping into death like their brothers and sisters, they continued to hope beyond all hope that they would be rescued. They found their solace in one another, strengthened by the fact that they were not alone.
In this world death also stands on your doorstep—diseases, disasters of every sort, wars, and violence rage all around threatening to tear your life apart. Will you continue to look to God in hope or will you walk away in despair? Alone, you will eventually fall into despair, but with others there is a chance for hope. Like Kiki and Sabrina, it is important that you and I face the harshness of reality in the company of one another. If you and I try to go it alone, then we will not make it—we are simply not strong enough. God has given us a community of brothers and sisters that we might build each other up and strengthen ourselves in the face of the world’s darkness. Peter’s first letter was written to Christians facing persecution, people tempted to give up on God. 1 Peter 1:6-9 says,
“Now for a little time you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine.”
He wrote these words to Christian communities, not to individuals. He wrote about facing despair as part of a community in Christ. Without community gathered around the cross the task ahead of us would be too much. When you and I stare death and despair in the face, refusing to buckle, we need each other. The hymn writer, Oswald Allen, put it this way. “When all things seem against us, to drive us to despair, we know one gate is open, one ear will hear our prayer” (Today, thy mercy calls us).
On Friday they laid Jesus’ body in the tomb. He had stared into the abyss and it swallowed him up. It looked like the kingdom he preached never came and now he was just another dead Messiah—a failure. Scoffers said his trust in a god who would let him face rejection, suffering, and crucifixion was a joke. How, they ridiculed, could he have thought that such a god was real? His god had been too late—his trust had been in vain. In a world where the strong conquer, he had been weak. In a world where wisdom ruled, he had been a fool. In a world where death had the final say, he was dead. This dark and unforgiving world once again asserted its strength. But as it pressed down relentlessly on this weak and seemingly foolish Jesus, its iron grip began to slip. On Sunday morning, the way of the world was shown to be a fraud. The world that everyone thought they knew was completely turned on its head. Jesus, this crucified failure, was bodily raised to life! His foolishness was proved to be true wisdom—his weakness, true strength! Everything the world thought it had figured out began to crumble in a pile of rubble.
A week after the disaster, Kiki and Sabrina’s aunt, Devinal, returned to the family’s apartment to look for some belongings. As she looked through the rubble she heard what she thought were muffled cries. Immediately she started to dig with a crowbar. Amazingly, a team of 20 American rescue workers from New York and Virginia stumbled onto the scene and moved in to help. They began to dig. After four hours of digging and cutting through five layers of crushed concrete they came upon Kiki. Huddled next to the corpse of one of his siblings they were able to pull him free. Then they released Sabrina who was trapped behind a metal chair. After eight grueling days without food or water the two children were reunited with their mother amidst tears and laughter. Their foolish hope was answered, and a small window into another world was revealed.
In the story of Kiki and Sabrina, and in countless others throughout the world, we are given small reminders that our natural understanding of what is good or evil, right or wrong, wise or foolish, strong or weak, has been turned upside down in Jesus Christ, the crucified. The insignificant and humble ways of faith, hope, and love are shown in him to be God’s way. The dark world around us continues to mock their foolish hope but our assurance is that the outcome of faith in Jesus’ God is nothing short of true rescue on the other side of death. As Peter wrote:
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8).
Though you do not see God, you know you will be saved from the evil clutches of a world of disease, disaster, war, and broken relationships. Cling to God in all things and you will be raised from the dead, just like Jesus! As you lie on your deathbed—and even in the days between now and then—you can be certain that your God, the God of Jesus, acts on the other side of death, on the other side of the abyss. The eyes of faith, given by the Spirit of Jesus, reveal to us that the true God of this world is found in the midst of the fearful abyss—our God resides in the crucified Jesus. You would be a fool to believe in a God like that—a God you cannot see, a God on the other side of death! Yeah, you would be a fool, just like Jesus.
“You believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Amen.
Commentary Provided by Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Steve Wilbraham, Karl Jacobson, Eric Barreto, Carla Works, Scott Hoezee, David Lose, Karoline Lewis, and Roger Gench
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
THE PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE & THE LORD’S PRAYER
O God, we cry: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And you answer: I will never leave you nor forsake you.
O God, be near us,
and hear our prayer.
Remind us again that life alone is nothing
without life together,
and that life together is nothing
without life in you.
O Lord, be near this despairing, forsaken world.
Hear the prayers of your people.
O Lord, be near your church, your people everywhere, and this congregation.
Hear the prayers of your people.
O Lord, be near the sick and suffering . . . .
Be near those who grieve . . . .
Be near all these lives with your tender mercy.
Hear the prayers of your people.
We lift these prayers to you, O God, because, though we have not seen you, we believe you,
you have filled us with inexpressible joy,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Who taught us to pray saying, Our Father…
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
OFFERING OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. God has given to us many good gifts, and calls us to respond. Let us now give in return.
PRAYER OF DEDICATION
Gracious God, accept what we offer today in the hope that it reflects the offering of our lives as dedicated to you and your service. Bless all that we offer so that it might serve you in this church and in our world. Amen.
Go out into the world in the peace of God in Christ.
Love God with all of your heart, strength, mind and soul.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
Lift up the brokenhearted,
Stand with the oppressed,
And let all that you do be out of love.