Dan McCoig's Sermons

Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. — John Calvin

Our New Life in Christ

Romans 6:1-14 | Common English Bible

Our new life in Christ

6 So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? 2 Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? 3 Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 5 If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. 6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, 7 because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. 8 But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. 10 He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. 11 In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

12 So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. 13 Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead, present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. 14 Sin will have no power over you, because you aren’t under Law but under grace.


At some point, each of us decided to follow Jesus.  We may have done it early in life.  We may have done it late in life.  We may have done it and then stepped off the path for a season and then made the decision all over again.  It may have been a decision after a period of thoughtful deliberation.  A decision of the mind.  It may have been a decision in response to a stirring of emotion.  A decision of the heart.  It may have been both and usually is.  My observation is that most people love their way into following Jesus rather than thinking their way into following Jesus.

For some of us the decision to follow Jesus was made for us if we were presented for baptism by a parent or parents when were infants.  Of course, when we were older, usually sometime around the age of 13, we had to make the decision for ourselves.  The commitments adults made on our behalf when we were children become our commitments, too.

The Christian scriptures are all over the map when it comes to just how the Christian life begins.  There are passages that talk about a person receiving the Holy Spirit and then seeking baptism.  There are passages that talk about persons being baptized and receiving the Holy Spirit either at the point of baptism or after the baptism.  There are passages where persons are baptized and there is no mention of the Holy Spirit’s presence.  There are also passages where persons receive the Holy Spirit but there is no mention of baptism.  So, when various Christian traditions insist that baptism has to be in a certain way and in a certain order, I have to say, not necessarily.

But the Christian journey always begins with intent.  Parents intend for their children to follow Jesus.  Young people intend to follow Jesus.  Adults, regardless of where they are in life, intend to follow Jesus.

Intention is one way we live an active life rather than a passive life.  We seek to make things happen rather than let things happen to us.

There are four questions in the Presbyterian tradition asked of everyone who joins a congregation.  We share these questions with many other Christian traditions.  You may or may not recall them.  That’s okay.  Here they are:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?

Who is your Lord and Savior?

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?

Will you devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers?

These are the questions our commissioning class responded to today.  I’m a language nerd and usually overthink everything.  It’s been a helpful preoccupation in the writing and delivering of sermons over the years.  I had a writing teacher who always emphasized paying attention to the verbs in any given sentence.

That’s helpful with these questions.  Trust.  Turn.  Renounce.  Will.  Obey.  Show.  Devote.  All of these verbs involve intent.  The questions ask what’s it going to be — what are we going to do with our lives?  what are we going to live for? who are we going to live for?


The first verb — trust — sets the stage for all the others.  Turning from sin and renouncing evil and obeying God and showing love and devoting ourselves to Christian practices aren’t possible without trust.

For Christians, our trust is in the saving grace of God in Christ. 

When it comes to Protestant Christian theology, there is probably no more foundational book of the Bible than Romans.  Both of the most influential 16th century Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin preached numerous sermons on passages from Romans.

As an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther wondered if he would ever be worthy of God’s love.  He was probably the most devout and dedicated monk in all of 16th century Germany, if not all of 16th century Europe.  He studied the scriptures. He prayed.  He fasted.  He vowed poverty and chastity.  He did all the things his religious order instructed him to do.  And still he had this gnawing sense that he could do more.

Luther’s reading of Romans changed everything for him.  From Romans, Luther develops his theology of justification by grace through faith.  We are right with God, our neighbor, and the world not because of any efforts on our part but because of grace on God’s part.  And the way we embrace and embody this grace is through faith.  We trust it.  It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

What happens when we trust that God has put us right with God and our neighbor?  What’s different?

Hopefully, everything.  Paul uses the language of a “new life in Christ.”  Humans have always sought to define who in the world it is that we are.  Scientifically, we are not that complicated.  We are culture-bearing primates with highly developed brains and the capacity for speech and abstract reasoning.  Theologically, however, we are a little more complicated.  To use the language of the Christian tradition, we are “simul justus et peccator” [see-mull you-stuss ett peck ah tore] — that’s Latin for righteous and sinner at the same time.

It’s humbling to think of ourselves in this way.  On those days when we think we have it altogether and couldn’t be more righteous, we need to remind ourselves that sin is never far away.  It’s a part of who we are as well.  And, in my mind, more importantly, on those days when we think we couldn’t be more miserable as a human, we need to remind our selves that grace is never far away.  It’s part of who we are as well.  We are saint and sinner, sinner and saint.

A long debated question in the Christian tradition is:  Are we saved sinners or saints who still sin?  And the answer, of course, is yes.  We are saved sinners  and we are saints who still sin.  If we believe we are saints only, we are insufferable.  If we believe we are sinners only, despair will overwhelm us.

Here’s the  good news.  Paul tells us that in Christ, we are set free from the sin that enslaves us and for a life that is free to live abundantly.  Our commissioning class is signing on for this truth today just as each of us has done when we decided to follow Jesus.  We affirm with Paul, that we now “Consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”



God’s Love Poured Out

Romans 5:1-11 | Common English Bible

5 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. 7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.


To all who have mothered us over the years and continue to mother us, Happy Mother’s Day and thank you.  My experience has taught me that those persons with the strongest mothering instincts come pretty close to the the love of God in Christ.  The love is extravagant and unconditional.  We get more than we need and we don’t have to say or do a doggone thing for it.

At the heart of today’s lesson, Paul talks about the love of God in Christ that is poured into our lives.  I like that image.  We are a vessel.  And into this vessel God pours love — not just once or now and again, but continually.  This we can count on.  Pastor Richard Sheffield puts it this way, “Our faith is not a matter of earning God’s love, but of discovering God’s faithfulness in loving us, always.”

You can put a lot of different things into a vessel.  Good things and bad things.  But God chooses the best thing, love.


Recently, I ran across a story about a man who was undergoing some pretty serious challenges.  These challenges involved both physical and emotional pain.  He hurt.  His body hurt.  His spirit hurt.  His pain was beyond anything he had ever experienced before.  He didn’t know where to begin in dealing with his pain.

In a conversation with a trusted friend, the friend said something that stuck with him.  The friend told him, “Don’t waste the pain.”

The man had to think through what his friend had told him.  He concluded pain is a part of life.  No life is free of suffering.  The question becomes what will we do with our pain, our suffering.

For Paul, pain and suffering presented an opportunity.  Paul doesn’t glorify pain and suffering.  He doesn’t seek it out.  But he does understand that its part of the human condition.

Paul points out that suffering, endurance, character, and hope are intertwined.  His words aren’t prescriptive, that is we must suffer in order to attain endurance; we must endure in order to develop character; and with character comes hope.  Rather, Paul’s words are descriptive of his experience and he is offering that experience to the Christians in Rome.  Their experience may be similar.


Leadership consultant, pastor, and author Peter Steinke wrote:  “We waste suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message . . . If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted but a source of life and health.”

Paul’s letter to the Romans is his last letter.  Paul wrote it at the end of his life and ministry.  In the letter, Paul summarizes what he learned of faith and hope and love and suffering.

Paul recounts the many ways he suffered in his letters.  He suffered at the hands of the Roman authorities.  He suffered storms on the sea.  He suffered a shipwreck.  He suffered from the unruly congregations who fought endlessly about one pastoral or theological issue after another and questioned his apostleship.

Given Paul’s reflective and introspective bent, he tried to put his suffering into some sort of perspective.  It meant something rather than nothing for Paul.  Paul sought not to waste his pain, not to waste his suffering.  For Paul, life and health and hope came in the midst of his suffering where he learned to endure which shaped his character and contributed to his hope.

It’s tempting to paint such a perspective as Pollyannish, as shallow, as unrealistically optimistic.  The reality is that there is pain and suffering that make no sense whatsoever no matter how hard we may try to make sense of it.  Nothing is more despairing than meaningless pain and suffering.

And yet, again for Paul and many Christians through the ages and even today, pain and suffering shape one’s endurance, character, and hope.  Paul doesn’t give us an instruction manual for how this works.  He simply tells us that it’s his experience.

Mother Teresa is one of the saintliest person of our lifetime.  She never shied away from pain and suffering.  In fact, she sought to be in the presence of and to comfort those is her city who hurt and suffered the most — the impoverished dying.  Giri, former president of India, had this to say about Mother Teresa:  “In our present-day troubled world, incessantly plagued by conflict and hatred, the life that is lived and the work that is being carried out by like Mother Teresa bring new hope for the future of humanity.”

Mother Teresa, I believe, understood Paul’s words better than most.  She could not have undertaken her work without the endurance and character and hope borne of pain and suffering, both her own and that of others.


I suspect that Paul gave hope a lot of thought.  He uses the word nearly 50 times in his letters.  Paul believed that nothing was beyond God’s grace and love and nothing could separate us from the love God in Christ — not pain, not suffering.  This belief contributed to Paul’s ability to hope.

I recall a seminary professor somewhere along the way remarking that Christian hope is not something we work out.  Rather, it is something we take in.  That sounded right to me when I first heard it and sounds all the more right with age and experience.  God’s love, freely given, is the substance of our hope.

Let’s return to the image of God’s pouring God’s love into us.  That’s something we seek to do with the people in our lives.  We want to pour the best of who we are into them just as they want to pour the best of who they are into us.  Love is God’s best and we see that love on full display in the life and work of Jesus.

So, what do we do with it?  Do we keep it to ourselves and savor it?  Maybe.  Hopefully not.  Do we pour it out into and for the sake of others?  Hopefully.

Theology is incomplete without ethics.  We can say and believe all sorts of things about God.  Hopefully, true and helpful things.  But if what we say and believe about God doesn’t make a positive difference in our lives — how we speak to others, how we treat others, what we value, what we pursue — and the life of our world — doesn’t transform us — then we should save our breath.

I believe this is where Paul was going with his letter to the Romans.  His desire for them — for us — was to take their Jesus-following, their discipleship seriously.  To put their entire selves in.  To take all that love God has poured out into them and pour it out into and onto others.

Also, I want to go back to the story of the man who was in pain and suffering and was told by his friend not to waste pain.  That must have been hard to hear.  It probably didn’t sound or feel at all like love.

But here’s the rest of the story.  The man endured his pain and suffering with the help of his friend and others and his faith.  He became more empathetic and compassion than he was before.  And, with the help of his friend he learned to hope through and beyond his pain and suffering.

It wasn’t easy by any means.  The path was far from straight and smooth.  There were twists and turns.  There were ups and downs.  Not unlike Paul’s journey.  Not unlike my journey.  And, I bet not unlike your journey either.

That’s the way life works.  But any journey that begins with God’s love, is filled with God’s love along the way, is headed in the direction of God’s love, and ends in God’s love is a journey more than worth taking.  That’s Paul’s message to the Romans.  That’s Paul’s message to us.


The Gospel As Salvation

The Gospel As Salvation | 7 May 2023 | Dan McCoig

Romans 1:1-17 | Common English Bible


1 From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news. 2-3 God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. 4 He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be apostles. This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake. 6 You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles.

7 To those in Rome who are dearly loved by God and called to be God’s people.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving and Paul’s plans to visit

8 First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because the news about your faithfulness is being spread throughout the whole world. 9 I serve God in my spirit by preaching the good news about God’s Son, and God is my witness that I continually mention you 10 in all my prayers. I’m always asking that somehow, by God’s will, I might succeed in visiting you at last. 11 I really want to see you to pass along some spiritual gift to you so that you can be strengthened. 12 What I mean is that we can mutually encourage each other while I am with you. We can be encouraged by the faithfulness we find in each other, both your faithfulness and mine.

13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I planned to visit you many times, although I have been prevented from coming until now. I want to harvest some fruit among you, just as I have done among the other Gentiles. 14 I have a responsibility both to Greeks and to those who don’t speak Greek, both to the wise and to the foolish.

God’s righteousness is revealed

15 That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. 16 I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.


Very few of us select our words to those around us as if they were our very last words to them.  All of us know that we have today and tomorrow is never guaranteed.  Some of us know this more keenly than others.

Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, Romans, is his valedictory letter; it’s his farewell letter.  He’s writing to persons he has not met and does not know personally.  What he knows of them is by reputation and word of  mouth.

Paul is making his way to Rome under imperial guard.  In Rome, he will stand trial before the emperor Nero.  If you are a historical date person, the timeline is roughly this — Paul arrives in Rome in 58, stands trial in 60, is imprisoned, and then beheaded in 64.  This is the scholarly consensus.  But since we are dealing with antiquity, it’s a challenge to be 100% sure.  The big picture, however, we know is true — arrival in Rome, trial, imprisonment, execution.

Paul knows full well what will become of him in Rome and puts quill to parchment to leave the early Christian community counsel and guidance after he is dead.  


A word that shows up multiple times in today’s lesson, which is the introduction to Romans and sets out the themes Paul will cover in the course of the letter, is faithfulness.  Paul thanks God for the Romans’ faithfulness.  The Roman’s faithfulness encourages Paul and Paul hopes to encourage the Romans by his faithfulness.  

Faithfulness can be a squishy word.  Ask ten people to tell you what it means and you may very well get ten variations on the word’s meaning.  For Paul, however, faithfulness meant trusting that God in Christ reconciles humanity to God and to one another, and living as a reconciled people.

The ancient world had it descriptors that kept people in their place and in their lanes.  Jews over here.  Gentiles over there.  Men, here.  Women, there.  Slaves, over there.  Children, here.  Social codes were in place to enforce the order of things.  If you said and did the right things, you were worthy.  If you didn’t say and do the right things, you were unworthy.

This kind of thinking slipped into the synagogue’s and the early church’s theology.  Truth be told, it’s still lurking about in certain theological neighborhoods.

Paul worked overtime at being the best religious person he knew how to be.  His credentials were impeccable.  He observed all the right rituals in all the right ways.  He also wondered, however, if it was enough.  Like countless saints through the centuries, he could always imagine himself being better, more observant.

Paul concluded that our relationship with God isn’t possible through our efforts.  Rather, it is by God’s grace through faith.  It’s God’s doing.  For our part, we trust the work of God in Christ to put us right with God.  We trust the work of God in Christ to put us right with our neighbor.

This is the message Paul carried around the Mediterranean world on his missionary journeys.  It’s the message that the early Christians celebrated in worship and shared in the marketplace.

When I read the Christian New Testament I get this sense that the world I am reading about was more religious-minded, more philosophical-minded.  Maybe.  But the persons on the page are humans just like you and me.

They had to concern themselves with food and shelter.  They had to interact amicably with family and friends, even when it was hard.  They had to navigate the economics and politics of their day.  But they also considered their relationship with God.  As do we.

They worshipped.  They prayed.  They gave alms for the poor.  They served their neighbors.  Not so much to obligate God to take notice and favor them, but as acts of gratitude for God’s goodness and grace.  As do we.

And, yet, as far as we can tell from Paul’s writings they wondered if they were right with God.  They wondered how persons became right with God.  Especially in a world that told them they just might not measure up; that, they aren’t enough.  As do we.


The next word that occurs repeatedly in our lesson is gospel.  What a great word!  Out of a curiosity, I Googled “gospel.”  Care to guess how many results came up?  327 billion.  That’s a lot of different takes on the word “gospel.”

In the Bible, gospel means good tidings or good news.  It’s information that you want to hear.  It’s information you lean in for and listen closely to.  It’s news that makes a difference in your life. 

When the angels announced Jesus’ birth, it was good tidings.  When Jesus travelled about Galilee, he described his very life as good tidings — He said, “The good news is at hand.”  In other words, it’s standing before you in me.  When Peter and Paul delivered their sermons about God in Christ in Acts, they described it as good news.

And who doesn’t like getting good news?  Birth announcements, wedding invitations, dinner parties, summer barbecues, acceptance letters from college, a new job prospect, hoped-for results from a medical test.  Good news gladdens our hearts.  Puts a twinkle in our eye and a smile on our face.  The Christian gospel is good news.

It makes me wonder how in the world Christianity ended up getting a bad rap in some quarters.  Multiple surveys suggest that Christians and Christian churches have become known more by what they are against than what they are for.  We’ve become the enforcer of certain social norms that have nothing to do with Jesus and what he was about.

My litmus test is and remains — would Jesus say that?  Would Jesus do that?  And, if we can’t imagine him saying or doing it, then we shouldn’t either.  Full stop.

The Christian faith has always been about words.  A central part of our faith is a volume of 66 books spanning a period of about 1000 years written in two ancient languages.  We call it the Bible.  It’s full of history, biography, travelogue, prose, poetry, letters.  It conveys information.  It provokes thought.  It evokes feelings.  It provides a window into the human heart when it is swelling with joy and when it is aching in sorrow.

Paul wrote most of the Christian New Testament.  And for Paul, the good tidings about God in Christ reconciling humanity to God and humans to one another was more than news or information.  It was power.  It was a force.

It was power to liberate us from sin’s power that bound us and death’s power to frighten us.  One of Paul’s more eloquent passages about sin’s power comes later in Romans in the seventh chapter.  Paul writes:

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

I don’t know about you, but I get what Paul is saying.  I get that I need a power beyond me to free me.  Paul called it the gospel.  And this gospel has power.

I don’t know exactly how it works.  But I do know that it does.  God’s Spirit takes ordinary words in scripture, even our ordinary words in conversation, and empowers them with an energy, a force to mend sin-sick spirits, to heal broken souls, to bring hope where there was once hopelessness.  God knows we need all of this.

Perhaps one of the best known accounts of the words of the gospel transforming a life is the story of John Newton.  Newton was an 18th century British slave trader in the Royal Navy.  Newton was haunted by his work and considered that it forever put him beyond God’s reach.  In his own words, he was a wretch.  But that’s not the end of the story.

The rest of the story involves grace, Newton serving as a parish priest in the Church of England, and becoming a prolific hymn writer.  His best known hymn is “Amazing Grace,” which was part of a sermon he preached on New Year’s Day, 1773.  A part of the sermon included these words.  Newton wrote:  “The reason for God’s mercy is unknown to me, but one thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”

That’s the power of the gospel at work.  At work in Newton’s life.  At work in Paul’s life.  At work in your life.  It’s the power of the gospel still at work in ways we can’t imagine and may never know all because of words.  Grace allows us to say with Newton, “I was blind, now I see.”


Peter’s Vision

Peter’s Vision | 23 April 2023 | Dan McCoig

Acts 10:1-17, 34-43

There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Company. 2 He and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly. 3 One day at nearly three o’clock in the afternoon, he clearly saw an angel from God in a vision. The angel came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

4 Startled, he stared at the angel and replied, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, “Your prayers and your compassionate acts are like a memorial offering to God. 5 Send messengers to Joppa at once and summon a certain Simon, the one known as Peter. 6 He is a guest of Simon the tanner, whose house is near the seacoast.” 7 When the angel who was speaking to him had gone, Cornelius summoned two of his household servants along with a pious soldier from his personal staff. 8 He explained everything to them, then sent them to Joppa.

9 At noon on the following day, as their journey brought them close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. 11 He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. 12 Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 13 A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

14 Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” 16 This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven.

17 Peter was bewildered about the meaning of the vision. Just then, the messengers sent by Cornelius discovered the whereabouts of Simon’s house and arrived at the gate.

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. 35 Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 This is the message of peace he sent to the Israelites by proclaiming the good news through Jesus Christ: He is Lord of all! 37 You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and endowed with power. Jesus traveled around doing good and healing everyone oppressed by the devil because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, 41 not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with him after God raised him from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”


When is the last time you changed your mind about something substantial to the point you said something similar to what Peter said in the opening line of his sermon, namely “I am really learning that God doesn’t show partiality . . .”?

It’s difficult for humans to say, “I was wrong.”  We like to be right and we like other people to know we are right.

All the great religious traditions value humility and repentance.  That is, owning up to the fact that I can and will be wrong; and, when I am wrong, with God’s help, finding a way to change direction.

I think Alcoholics Anonymous gets this more right than most communities.  Listen to steps one and two of the Twelve Steps:  “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.”  “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”


Peter’s world was clearly mapped out for him.  The world consisted of Jews — people God liked — and Gentiles — people God kept at arm’s length at best.  It was good to be a Jew.  It was less good to be a Gentile.  These two groups didn’t interact religiously or socially.  They interacted in trade and commerce as a matter of necessity.

The last place Peter would ever imagined himself being would have been in the home of Gentile centurion talking about what God had done and was doing in Christ.  Every fiber of his being would have been crawling.  He would have been thinking — this isn’t right, this is wrong; I’m going against everything I ever learned about how God has ordered the world.  I should not be here.

The religious divide in Peter’s world is comparable to the racial divide in our world.  Granted, it’s gotten better but there’s still work to be done.

Let me tell you a story.  It’s about my mother.  She grew up in the Jim Crow South of the 1930s and 1940s.  “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs were a common sight.  White people lived on one side of town.  Black people lived on another side of town.  White people went to one school.  Black people went to another school.  This was the order of things.  And you could find far too many Christian communities that either blessed this order of things or were silent.

Fast forward to the 1980s.  My family is visiting mom and dad in the Richmond area.  We are at a local shopping mall.  My mother wants to buy our young daughter a cabbage patch doll.  We go into the toy story.  My mother tells our daughter to pick out any doll she wishes.  Our daughter selects a black doll.  The look on my mother’s face is one of horror.  Mom tries very hard to point out all the other dolls.  Our daughter is having none of it.  She’s made her choice.

Mom buys the doll.  The clerk puts it in a bag and we leave the store.  Well, our daughter wants to carry the doll.  So, we take the doll out of the bag and give it to our daughter.  My mom is looking about to make sure no one who might know her sees what is happening.

At some point, our daughter suggests that mom carry the doll.  Mom insists that our daughter should carry the doll.  And, our daughter insists that mom carry the doll.  Mom relents.  She holds the doll to her side and behaves as she has nothing in her arms at all.  This was obviously an unnerving experience for her.  In mom’s world, middle aged white women didn’t walk in public places with a black baby doll in her arms.  No one told our daughter the rules, thankfully.

I’m not sure mom ever got to the point of saying with Peter, “I’m really learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group over another” before the end of her life.  I’d like to think that she did but I don’t know.


Peter is one of those figures in the Christian New Testament you’d least expect to change his mind.  It took a vision from God for him to see the world differently.  It took a visit from a Gentile, Cornelius.

Eastertide is the season of the church when we visit scriptures that talk about appearances of the Risen Lord and what became of the disciples after they moved beyond dark rooms and locked doors, when their fear was replaced with boldness.  Our lesson from Acts is a story of the expanding faith community.  Just as Jesus crossed one boundary after another in his public ministry, the community that bears his name begins to cross boundaries, too.

Peter’s sermon in Acts is a summary of the church’s Easter message.  God in Christ is redeeming all of creation.  Not some of it, but all of it.  And, God loves all of creation, in all of its amazing diversity.

It took a vision from heaven for Peter to get to this sermon.  In the vision, Peter is brought face to face with his partialities, his biases.

The author of Luke expects us to examine our partialities, our biases as well.  It’s hard work, especially in a culture and a society that has divided itself so starkly with each side convinced of the righteousness of their positions and the perfidy of the positions of other persons.  We don’t have conversations anymore.  We have shouting matches.  And, it’s not working for anyone.

I don’t know what all it will take for us to turn the page.  But I do believe that the church has a role to play.

For starters, let’s remember the depth of God’s love for us — God’s welcome and compassion, God’s forgiveness.  Let’s remember that this divine love isn’t for us and us alone, it’s isn’t solely for people we know and like and care about.  It’s for everyone.  Peter had to be converted to this understanding of God and God’s love in Christ.  Perhaps we need to be converted to it as well.

Salvation for Peter, in part, was from a tiny worldview with rigid boundaries that were to never be crossed.  I have to wonder if when Peter told his faith story that it included his vision of God showing no partiality.  I have to wonder if Peter pointed to his vision and said, this is when God saved me.  I was the guy who knew and walked with Jesus.  And I was also the guy who denied and abandoned Jesus.  God set all that aside and made a place for me and told me to do the same for Cornelius and everyone else.

In other words, Peter had made up his mind that the gospel about Jesus was for some and not others.  It was exclusionary.  Some were worthy to hear the news of Jesus and others were not.  Not so, says God.

This is a theme of the book of Acts.  Radical inclusion.


About 20 years ago the movie Chocolat was released.  The movie is a romantic drama that explores the damage the church does to itself and to others when it excludes instead of welcomes.  In nutshell, here’s the story — a foreign woman arrives in a small town in France and opens a chocolate shop.  It’s Lent.  It’s clear that the shop owner is not going to fit.  Her shoes are too loud.  She sells confections during a season of abstaining from such pleasures.  But here’s the thing.  The shop owner embodies the Christian values of compassion and peace and justice.

Another central character is the town priest.  He is torn between echoing the legalistic interpretation of the town’s mayor and many of the town citizens and his own more expansive understanding of the faith that can make room for the shop owner.

In his Easter sermon, the priest says these words:  “Do I want to speak of the miracle of our Lord’s divine transformation?  Not really, no.  I don’t want to talk about his divinity.  I’d rather talk about his humanity, his kindness, his tolerance.  I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do.  By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and whom we exclude.  I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and whom we include.”

In the movie Chocolat, the priest learns how deep and wide God’s love is for all.  In Peter’s vision, he learns how deep and wide God’s love is for all.  May we learn the same lesson and embody it.

I believe we all have our own “Peter” moments.  We can be hot and cold.  We can be clear minded and confused.  But, Peter, with God’s help and through the Spirit, was open to having his heart and mind changed.  Amen.

Some Worshiped, Some Doubted

Some Worshiped, Some Doubted | 16 April 2023 | Dan McCoig

Matthew 28:16-20 | Common English Bible

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”


My formative years were in a congregation that took what is known as The Great Commission very seriously.  Taking The Great Commission very seriously meant, in part, telling as many people as you could that Jesus was Lord and Savior and that they should accept him as Lord and Savior just as you had.  This approach worked sometimes and backfired other times.

This particular style of evangelism shows up throughout Christian history. It goes all the way back the apostle Paul’s earliest missionary journeys.  Paul traveled the Mediterranean world.  Everywhere he went he told people that God was in Christ reconciling the world, liberating persons from the power of sin and of death.

As I thought about what evangelism was originally and what it has become, this occurred to me:  Paul’s message was mostly about what God was doing — reconciling and liberating.  The church’s message, at least since the Great Awakenings and the advent of mass evangelism, became mostly about what we were doing — accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and savior or not.

I’m going to circle back around to this but wanted to get it said at the outset.


Christianity has been something of a mixed bag from day one.  Matthew alludes to this mixed bag in The Great Commission.

All eleven disciples see the Risen Lord on that Galilean mountaintop.  And some worshipped him.  But others doubted.  In other words, they were not of the same heart and mind.

Matthew doesn’t tell us anything else about those who worshipped.  He doesn’t tell us anything else about those who doubted.  It just was, that some worshipped.  It just was, that some doubted.

We can speculate all we want but in the end that’s all it is, speculation.  And, of course, speculation never stopped a person with even the slightest amount of curiosity, especially preachers.

I know people whose faith astounds me.  No matter what happens they have a deep, abiding sense that God is with them and will sustain them even in the deepest of life’s troughs and the darkest nights, which, of course, comes with being human.  Such faith inspires me; it heartens me.  Sometimes, but certainly not all the time, I’m such a person.

I also know people whose faith surprises me and not in a good way.  Even the slightest set back upends them.  They become undone by life’s travails.  They live with the illusion that being human is nothing but sweetness and light and nary a storm cloud arises.  And when things go sideways, as they will, they become convinced that God has abandoned them.  Such faith hurts.  Sometimes, but certainly not all the time, I’m such a person.

Christian faith is big.  It’s not linear.  It’s seasonal.  It ebbs and flows.  It has highs and lows.  Sometimes it is strong and sometimes it is weak.  Why?  Because Christian faith is believed and practiced by human beings — mortal, finite human beings.

The Christian scriptures admit this from the get go.  The scriptures are interesting in this way.  Usually, origin texts only give the reader the good parts and leave out the bad parts.  The scriptures give it all to us.  They tell us about those who left everything to follow Jesus.  They also tell us about those who gave discipleship another thought and decided it simply wasn’t for them.  Too costly.

We get Peter’s denials.  We get Thomas’ skepticism.  We get Paul’s invective against the faith before his conversion. We get Mary and Martha’s disappointment.  We get Mary’s tears.  We get hiding and fearful disciples behind closed doors.

It’s not surprising when the Risen Lord speaks his final words before ascending to heaven that among the eleven disciples that were there that some worshipped and some doubted.  I have one of those minds that wants to know who was in the worshipping camp and who was in the doubting camp.  Did the worshippers outnumber the doubters or did the doubters outnumber the worshippers?


The body of persons in the world that call themselves Christian historically has never been monolithic.  It has never been uniform.  It has always been diverse.  It has always been divergent.

Granted there have been, are, and probably always will be individual Christian communities who seek to define their identity narrowly and by doing so leave little or no room who believe and practice the faith differently.

I was curious about the origin of the term The Great Commission.  Jesus didn’t use the term.  As best we can tell, he didn’t say “Here is the Great Commission.”  Most authorities concede that the origin of the term is unknown.

Somebody, somewhere, at some point chose to describe the Risen Lord’s final words to his disciples as The Great Commission.  This much we know.

I get the commission part.  We all know what a commission is.  A commission is an instruction, a duty, or a command given by one person or group of persons to another.  Next month we will have a commissioning service for some of the teenagers in our congregation.  We, as a Christian community, will commission them to service in Christ’s name as active members of this faith community.

Jesus’ commission to the eleven — to those who worshipped him and to those who doubted him — was straightforward.  Go.  Make disciples.  Baptize.  Teach.

Scholars have debated to whom is the commission given.  The eleven that were present?  Or, the church in every time and place?  I’m going with the church in every time and place since Matthew’s gospel is the most church-oriented and universal of the gospels.  Yes, it originally was only for the eleven.  But it is also for the church gathered by those eleven.

This leaves us to unpack the verbs.

Go.  Inside evangelism is only so effective.  It’s not enough to say here we are, come in if you like, hopefully you’ll stay and get involved and love Jesus, too. 

Go.  Sometimes evangelism has to be outside evangelism.  It takes leaving the building, which is something we began doing each fourth Sunday of the month this year.  Outside evangelism is each and everyone of us.  Hopefully, folks know that we are Christian.  Hopefully, they know we call this community home.  Hopefully, they can get a sense of what our faith means to us and what our faith community means to us.

I had a seminary classmate who came to ministry as a second career.  His first career was as an engineer.  He was one of those people whose faith was so evident that he found himself in so many spiritual conversations that it was taking away time from what his company had hired him to do.  He took this as a sign that God wanted him in ordained ministry.  So, it was off to seminary for him.

Make disciples.  This is the tricky part of the commission because of the word “make.”  There are helpful meanings of the word “make.”  For example, I’m going to make you happy by doing things that bring you joy — breakfast in bed, some quiet time free of life’s demands, travel to a long-desired destination, a conversation where you get my undivided attention.  This is the word “make” as a loving gesture.

But there are unhelpful meanings of the word “make” as well.  For example, I’m going to make you behave or speak in a way that is acceptable to me.  I’m going to make you like me.  I’m going to make you value the things I value.  This is the word “make” as a coercive action.

I think Jesus had the first meaning in mind.  We make disciples — followers of Jesus — by doing and saying things that result in Jesus and the Christian life being desirable.  People are more often loved into a relationship than threatened into a relationship.

Too often the brand of Christianity that gets the most media attention is a brand where to be Christian is to be against a whole host of things.  If the only thing I knew about Christianity was what I got from the newspapers or the television or the internet, I don’t think I could be a Christian.  In fact, I know I couldn’t.  

Thankfully, what I know about Christianity comes from local Christian communities that have formed and molded me over the years.  Jesus was always about grace and mercy and for justice and peace.  And the Christian community on its best days embodied these virtues.  I was loved into the faith by people like you and that’s the way others will be evangelized as well.  Together, with God’s help and through the Holy Spirit, we will love our community into the faith.

Baptize.  With each passing year, I appreciate more and more the power of ritual.  One of the defining rituals of the Christian faith is baptism.  When the Christian community gathers to baptize someone they are declaring that God has named and claimed the person being  baptized as a child of God and sibling in the faith.  The waters of baptism mark us forever as God’s.  It takes a lifetime to live into baptism and living into baptism is a circuitous path.  But baptism is an important step on the journey.  It was an important step on Jesus’ journey.

Every Christian community on our planet practices baptism.  We don’t all do it the same way and we may use different words.  We may not fully understand exactly what it is we are doing.  But we all baptize.  One, because Jesus said so.  And two, as humans we need ritualistic words and actions that help us embrace our identity and chart our way in the world.  And baptism does that.  It declares whose we are — God’s — and whose path we will follow — God’s in Christ.

And lastly, teach.  This one is for Presbyterian Christians.  Presbyterians have established schools, colleges, and universities everywhere we have gone.  In Presbyterian theology, the chief sin is ignorance and education is salvation.

Of course, what Jesus meant in Matthew 28 is not to teach the arts and sciences per se.  What he meant was to teach what he taught — love God, love neighbor, forgive, show mercy, seek justice, make a place at the table for everyone, rejoice with the merrymakers, grieve with the sorrowful.  In other words, teach Jesus’ way in the world.


Matthew’s gospel ends where it began — with God in Christ with us through it all.  Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German theologian, put it this way:  “I am sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God.  God is nearer to me than I am to myself; my existence depends on the nearness and the presence of God.


Seeing Jesus Through Tears

Seeing Jesus Through Tears | Easter 2023

Dan McCoig

John 20:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)

20 Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 3 Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. 4 They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. 5 Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 6 Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. 8 Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.


Reading the Easter story in the midst of what seems like one crisis after another is a defiant act.  Easter evokes images of blue skies and brightly blossoming flowers and trees, birdsong, emerald green grass, our Sunday best and perhaps even a new brightly colored bowtie, eggs scattered about and filled with jelly beans and chocolates.  It also evokes a pipe organ sounding its sweetest and crispest notes with a full choir singing at the top of their lungs with a certain glow on their faces.  Easter evokes an added orchestra of strings and brass and timpani for good measure.  It evokes a church full to overflowing with the occasional worshiper returning to hear once again that the gospel is true as well as the extended family who has come home for the holiday.  All of these things are what I love about Easter.

But, here’s the rub:  How do Christians gather and affirm resurrection hope when the world is hurting in so many places and hearts are aching everywhere?  I am an optimist and try to maintain my optimism, but of late it is getting harder and harder.  Too much of what’s going on in the world is heavy and burdensome.  It takes a certain measure of defiance to proclaim and live into Easter and its message of resurrection hope.  I’m not sure that defiance is even the word, but it’s the one I’m going with for now.

Three short years ago Easter took even a greater measure of defiance.  We were in the thick of the pandemic with minimal understanding and no proven therapies.  Medical science was building the bridge as we crossed it.  I happen to think that Easter always takes defiance.


Here are some of things that I notice when I read the Easter story in the midst of crises on the order of climate instability, hunger, yet another shooting.  I noticed when the first Easter came.  Things were hard, even awful.  Things were going from worse to worst.  It didn’t seem that anything on the order of Easter could come.  Resurrection was too good to dream of or imagine.

Judea was occupied by the Roman empire.  Some of the Judeans resisted the occupation and others collaborated with it.  This created hostile division.  People were taxed harshly and exploitatively.  Corruption was routine.  The empire resorted to violence and cruelty to enforce its rule and instill fear among the occupied.  Caesar wanted people to think more than twice before they challenged him and his rule.  This is the way empires work.

It was not unusual for the guilty and the innocent alike to be arrested and unjustly tried and even executed.  For Rome, the most important thing was keeping power and gaining more power and the only way Rome knew how to do this was with might, by the sword and the spear.

This is the world into which the first Easter came. It’s the world into which Easter always comes. And on a personal level, it came into a world of loss, sadness, and grief.

Jesus’ public ministry ended in Jerusalem.   After his entry into the city atop a donkey to a chorus of hosannas, the plan to arrest, try, and kill him went into high gear.  In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that there might be another way.  There wasn’t.  Jesus’ faithfulness to God that had seen him through his life and his ministry would now see him through his impending death.

At the heart of John’s account of the first Easter is Mary and her tears.  There are four Christian gospels with four different Easter stories.  They each have emphases all their own.  Details that are important to other gospel writers — Mark, Matthew, and Luke — aren’t important to John and details that are important to John aren’t important to the other gospel writers.

Mary has spent three years following Jesus, listening to Jesus, observing Jesus, learning from Jesus, serving Jesus.  Mary was there at his arrest.  She was there at his trial.  She was there at his crucifixion.  She loved Jesus as much if not more than the other disciples.  Her heart was shattered, in pieces.  What would become of all that Jesus said and did, his ministry, this kingdom of God he proclaimed where the least mattered and the last become first — the God he showed the world was a God of mercy and justice, of love and not wrath or control or hate?  What would become of the movement that had gathered around him, his followers?  A movement that was changing lives.  Mary feared for her friends, she feared for herself.

John tells us that Mary makes her way to Jesus’ tomb before daybreak.  It’s still dark.  She is expecting to find Jesus’ body but doesn’t.  She suspects, reasonably, that someone has taken it and says as much to Peter and the beloved disciple.  They make a dash for the tomb to see for themselves.

What they see is an empty tomb with discarded burial cloths.  The detail John provides tells us that this is more than a body snatching is the face cloth that was folded and laid separately from the body cloth.  Body snatchers don’t leave grave cloths and certainly don’t fold them.  Something has happened here they don’t know what to make of.

While Peter and the beloved disciple return to the other disciples, Mary stays by the empty tomb, crying.  She is beyond grief-stricken.   What happens next may be the most tender moment in all of religious scripture.

There, in the garden outside of the tomb, angels appear and ask about Mary’s tears.  She tells them about her sadness.  Her Lord’s body is missing.  Then another figure appears.  Mary mistakes this figure for the gardener.  The man asks about her tears as well and then speaks her name.  It is at this moment Mary realizes that her Lord has been resurrected from the dead.  Through her tears, Mary sees Jesus.  

Jesus, now the Risen Lord, speaks Mary’s name.  In John’s theology, Jesus is the pre-existent Word who has been in and with God before there was time or space and through whom God spoke the cosmos into being.  We know this from John’s prologue that begins with the very words of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, “In the beginning.”

John’s theology is the most cosmic.  Just as God created with a spoken Word in Genesis [the beginning], now God recreates with the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.  And this incarnate Word knows and speaks Mary’s name.  It’s John’s way of telling us how personal God is because God knows and speaks our name as well.

Evidently and understandably, Mary wanted this moment to last and last and may have reached for Jesus.  But he tells her to let him go to his God and Father, her God and Father.  He also tells her to return to the disciples to tell them what she has seen.  So, Mary, more so than Peter or the beloved disciple becomes the first witness, the first preacher, the first apostle.


So, when does Easter come?  When does resurrection come?  It comes in the troubled times, in the bleakness and the dark, it comes when injustice has the upper hand, it comes in the sadness and the grief, it comes in the despair and uncertainty, it comes even in a pandemic amidst dying and death.

And it comes always and inevitably.  It can’t be stopped.  It won’t be stopped.

Christians are an Easter people, a resurrection people.  We don’t know what’s on the other side of our world’s pain and hurt much as the first disciples didn’t know what was on the other side of Jesus’ grave, yet we have hope that just as God is with us through it, there will be an Easter, a resurrection on the horizon.

Today, on this Easter morning, hear again God speak your name.  You may hear it in the quiet.  You may hear it in the voice of a loved one, you may hear it in scripture, you may hear in song, you may read it in a beloved piece of literature, you may sense it in your own tears for a world out of kilter.  And, see again the love of God in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.  Because it’s always there.

Easter is our annual reminder that the sting of death has no purchase over life.  We need this reminder often.  I know I do. 

Here’s the Easter message:   Love wins.  Life wins.  And to borrow from author Anne Lamott:  God bats last and is such a show off.

He is risen.  He is risen indeed.


Where Are You Headed?

Where Are You Headed? | Palm Sunday 2023

Dan McCoig

21 When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that their master needs them.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.” 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them.

8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


Winchester knows how to put on a great parade.  Every May there’s the fireman’s parade on Friday night of the Apple Blossom Festival and the Grand Feature parade on Saturday afternoon.  Ordinarily, parades are festive affairs — there’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC; there’s the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day; there are champions parades in cities around the country when professional sports team bring home a championship trophy after a long season of hard work.

Picture all of those parades.

But parades can be menacing as well.  In August of 2017, young white men marched through the streets of Charlottesville with tiki torches in hand shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”  Granted, this Unite the Right gathering of white supremacists was billed as a political rally, but it was a parade of sorts.

On January 6, 2021, there was another menacing parade.  This time it was in our nation’s capital that damaged our capitol building and injured and killed law enforcement officers.  The paraders were displeased with the outcome of the presidential election and chose violence as the vehicle for their grievances.  Litigation against the insurrectionists and their leaders is still ongoing.


More than two millennia ago, there were at least two parades that entered Jerusalem during Passover, a Jewish holiday commemorating Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt.  Over the course of eight days each spring, observant Jews tell the story of the exodus.

One parade was the one we read about in Matthew.  We will circle back to it in a moment.

The other parade would have been Pilate’s.  Each year at Passover, Pilate and his military escort would have made their way from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem to the city of Jerusalem.  The city would be filled with religious pilgrims.

The pilgrims as well as the residents of Jerusalem loathed Pilate and everything he stood for.  Pilate was the Roman emperor’s governor of Judea.  Pilate’s job was to remind the Judeans who was in charge.  He did this through the display of military might.  He did this through taxation.  He did this through the exercise of a brand of justice that brutalized Judeans.

The persons who lined the road as Pilate’s procession passed would have mostly remained silent.  If they spoke out against the governor they did so at the risk of their very lives.  The governor did not tolerate dissent in any way, shape, or form.

Pilate’s parade was a display of control, of power.  It said, this land is the emperor’s.  All of you are subjects of Caesar.  Get in line and stay in line.

The Judeans got the message.  They didn’t like it, but they got it.


Now, that other parade — this one coming from the east.  There’s a peasant, itinerant rabbi sitting atop a donkey.  It’s Jesus.

And the crowd is ecstatic.  They are lining the road with their cloaks and palm branches.  They are waving palm branches and shouting loud “Hosannas,” which translates “Pray, save us.”

Some in the crowd knew who Jesus was or had heard about him — his teaching, his preaching, his miraculous healings, his adversarial run-ins with the religious leadership.  But others did not.  They are no doubt the ones who asked who he was at the end of the passage.

Parades have a way of drawing us in and engaging us or annoying us and repelling us.  Parades can be well-intended or ill-intended.  With hindsight, we know that the palm-waving, hosanna-shouting crowd was a fickle lot.  Within the week many of them would also be shouting “Crucify him!” as Jesus appeared before Pilate in the palace.  They asked Jesus to save them on one occasion and within the week they asked Pilate to kill Jesus on another occasion.

Hosanna is an important word in our passage.  “Pray, save us.”  In the Psalms — the Jewish prayerbook, it’s reserved as an address to God, since God alone can save humanity from itself.  Here in Matthew, it’s an address to Jesus, who Matthew tells us earlier in his gospel is God.

I’ve often wondered what exactly did the persons on the side of the road want Jesus to save them from or for.  The most obvious answer is from Roman imperial occupation.  In the history of humanity, there isn’t a single people who on the whole wishes for someone else to control their existence and their destiny.

As Americans, we know this all too well.  Yes, in 1776 there were Royalists.  But there were also revolutionaries and the revolutionaries carried the day after six years of war against Great Britain.  In three short years, 2026, we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence written by a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

In Jesus’ day, there were zealots who wished to overthrow their Roman occupiers and liberate Judea.  These zealots would have seen in Jesus someone who could rally persons to their cause.

Jesus, I believe, would have been sympathetic to the cause of the zealots.  Jesus was a boundary crosser on so many social constructs.  He included children and women in his movement.  He interacted with persons on all the margins — lepers, prostitutes, demoniacs, and even tax collectors [those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers].

But Jesus could not and would not abide the use of violence to secure the liberation the zealots sought for Judea.  This must have frustrated the zealots to no end.  As a rule, colonizers don’t restore land and peoples because someone asks nicely.  They have to be driven out with arms or humiliated for being in the wrong.  

Jesus’ way was non-violence.  He held fast to his non-violence.  He did so in the garden when he told Peter to put away his sword.  He did so before Pilate as he submitted to an unjust accusation and trial.  He did so on the cross as he died.  Justice will prevail, but the path toward justice is one of suffering.

Sometimes people say things they don’t fully understand in the moment.  For example, the crowds pleas for Jesus to save them.  From what, we have asked.  Roman occupation?  That’s the obvious answer.

I think there are other answers, though.  Here’s one I would like for us to try on.  Violence as a means to resolve issues.  It was Rome’s go to method.  And it worked.  But it fostered animosity, resentment, vengeance.  It also fostered dehumanization of the foot soldiers who had to carry out the violence ordered by the emperor and the governor and their superior officers.

Jesus’ choice of a donkey instead of a horse points to humility and peace.  So did all that he had said and done up to this point in Matthew’s gospel.

Also, might the crowd have been calling on Jesus to save them from everything that bound them — systems that oppressed them, systems that marginalized them, systems that impoverished them, systems that exploited them; personal sin that kept them from living fully, that kept others from living fully.

Matthew tells us in the very first chapter of his gospel that the child Mary bears, Jesus, will save his people from their sins.  Jesus name means God saves.

Jesus, as he makes his way throughout Judea, calls upon people to repent and believe the Good News.  To repent means to change — our hearts, our minds, our lives.  Believing the good news means trusting that God is in Christ uniting humanity to God and to one another.

A follower of Jesus, that would be us, is someone who repents and believes and pursues and embodies the love, mercy, and justice of God revealed in Christ.  Jesus calls this being “the light of the world.”  And light is something the world needs more than anything else right about now.  Light is something the world always has and always will need.


I started this sermon talking about parades.  We know where Pilate’s parade ended up.  At the palace.  A place of power and might, control and corruption; a place of tyranny.  And, we know where Jesus’ parade ended up.  On the cross.  A place of salvation from sin and separation from God; a place of salvation for service to others in God’s name; a place of God’s love for humanity.

Palm Sunday is our annual opportunity to revisit the question:  Where are we headed?  To the palace or to the cross.  What is in our hands?  A palm or a cudgel?  Are we in Pilate’s parade?  Or Jesus’ parade?


Can These Bones Live?

Can These Bones Live? | 26 March 2023 | Dan McCoig

John 11:1-45 and Ezekiel 37:1-14

John 11

 A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (2 This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. 6 When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, 7 he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”

8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. 10 But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

11 He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” 13 They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

14 Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. 15 For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

Jesus with Martha and Mary

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

28 After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. 30 He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

32 When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

35 Jesus began to cry. 36 The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb

38 Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

40 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” 41 So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. 42 I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” 43 Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

45 Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.

Ezekiel 37

The Lord’s power overcame me, and while I was in the Lord’s spirit, he led me out and set me down in the middle of a certain valley. It was full of bones. 2 He led me through them all around, and I saw that there were a great many of them on the valley floor, and they were very dry.

3 He asked me, “Human one, can these bones live again?”

I said, “Lord God, only you know.”

4 He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! 5 The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again. 6 I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.”

7 I prophesied just as I was commanded. There was a great noise as I was prophesying, then a great quaking, and the bones came together, bone by bone. 8 When I looked, suddenly there were sinews on them. The flesh appeared, and then they were covered over with skin. But there was still no breath in them.

9 He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live.”

10 I prophesied just as he commanded me. When the breath entered them, they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company.

11 He said to me, “Human one, these bones are the entire house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.’ 12 So now, prophesy and say to them, The Lord God proclaims: I’m opening your graves! I will raise you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to Israel’s fertile land. 13 You will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you up from your graves, my people. 14 I will put my breath in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says.”


Here’s a straightforward exercise.  In your mind, list as many reasons to despair as you can in thirty seconds. If you wish, you can jot down your list in your bulletin.  I’ll set a timer.  Time.  Now, list as many reasons to be hopeful in thirty seconds.  Again, I’ll set a timer.  Time.

How did your lists come out?  Was one longer than the other?  What kinds of things did you list — living on a planet in a climate emergency, the war in Ukraine, instability in our banking system, hate groups, rising fascism in democratic societies, too much screen time, a pandemic that has become endemic, chronic and incurable disease.  Those are some of the things that showed up on my “despair list.”

That was the easy list to make.  What about our “hopeful list?”  It may have been the harder of the two to make.  Medical breakthroughs, the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, the deep wisdom of the aged, the unfettered joy of children, the unbounded exuberance of youth, advances in renewable energy sources and technology, unconditional love.

Christians are a people of hope even when the evidence points to despair.  The word “hope” shows up throughout the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.  It’s a challenge to read any one of the 66 books of the Bible without running across either the word “hope” or one of its variations — “hoping,” “hopeful.”

Hope makes Christians unusual.  We are the kind of folks who make a list of things that cause us to despair and still say things like “God is love,” “Peace is the way,” and “Justice will arrive” and mean it.  Not because of who we happen to be and what we can or can’t do about it, but because of who God is and what God has promised.


This week marked the third year since the world shutdown because of Covid-19.  People were getting sick and dying at an alarming rate from a new coronavirus.  To date, nearly seven million people in the world have died from Covid-19.  Initially, medical experts weren’t quite sure where it came from and how it was transmitted from person to person.  Initially, there were no vaccines and vaccines took time to develop.  Major cities across the globe had to set up a system of makeshift morgues to accommodate the cascading flood of corpses.

Covid-19 resulted in disruptions in every area of life; disruptions that we are still feeling the ripples from.  The question everyone asked, either verbally or internally, was and is, I believe, is “Are we going to be alright?”

That is about as basic as a question as there gets.  Are we going to be alight?  There are several answers to it.  There’s “Yes, we will be alright.”  There’s “No, we won’t be alright.”  And, there’s “It’s hard to say whether we will be alright or not.”

Today’s lesson gets at this question of “will we be alright?”  The lesson from Ezekiel places the prophet in a valley of dry bones.  The prophet repeats again and again that the bones are dry.  It’s his way of saying that the bones have long been dead and that there’s no possibility of life for these bones ever.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian exile.  Jerusalem lay in ruins.  Lifeless bones would have littered the city’s streets and byways leading from Judea to Babylon — modern day Israel and modern day Iraq.  The survivors were exiled to a faraway land where they would remain for 70 years.  If the exiled Israelites despaired and abandoned hope, it was more than understandable.

What could the prophet say to the people?  The people had become like dry, lifeless bones. 

In his vision, Ezekiel and God have a conversation.  God asks Ezekiel if the bones can live again.  Ezekiel essentially says that he doesn’t know and that God alone knows.  Then God gives Ezekiel a prophecy to speak to the Israelites.  The prophecy reanimates and enfleshes the dry bones.  The Israelites’ despair is replaced with hope.  Life overpowers death.

What Ezekiel heard and saw and felt in that valley of dry bones answered for him the question “will we be alright?” because he didn’t know and if he had to answer it would be “no, we won’t be alright.”  Dry, lifeless bones is who we have become and are and will be.

My guess is that Ezekiel would have been just as overwhelmed as everyone else during the exile.  His spirit had grown so downcast that he couldn’t see a way out of the situation he and his people were in.  It took a word from God to show him a way out, to restore his hope.

Amidst the damage and crisis and violence of the Babylonian exile that persisted long year after long year and then long decade after long decade, Ezekiel and the Israelites had to have concluded that this was their lot.  Another life, a new life was simply not possible, much less probable.  Allowing themselves to believe or trust that another life, a new life was possible was too painful.  It would result only in hopes being dashed all over again.

God’s word to Ezekiel and Ezekiel’s word to the exiled Israelites changed everything.  They could hope again.


Our lesson in John 11 is another story of hopelessness turning to hope.  Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died and has been dead for four days — a point beyond which resuscitation is not possible.  Life is simply no longer a possibility.

Jesus raises Lazarus back to life to the astonishment of his sisters and his friends in the village.  Jesus by this point has done some miraculous and remarkable things but raising a dead person back to life after four days tops them all.

What Mary and Martha learned that day and they did so the hard way — through tears of grief and aching hearts at their brother’s death — was this:  That Jesus brings life and that in him life is possible always, both this side of the grave and beyond the grave.

Here are some takeaway questions for us to live with this week as we begin to approach Holy Week with Palm Sunday next Sunday.  They are questions posed by biblical commentator Danielle Shroyer.  She asks:  “Can we trust that life is always possible in God?  Can we find hope, and even faith, when we are sitting in a valley of dry bones and literal death?”

Shroyer also writes:  “God doesn’t ask us to believe the situation will get better [it may not].  God asks us to believe that life itself will not, in the end, cower under the pressure of human destruction.  Abundant life persists.”


How Do We Begin Again

How Do We Begin Again?  |  5 March 2023

 Dan McCoig

John 3:1-17  |  Common English Bible

3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Genesis 12:1-4  |  Common English Bible

12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.


I want to tell you the story of a colleague, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow.  Bruce is a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA.  Most recently, he was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, CA.  Listen:

“In December of 2021, our family, four generations strong, remotely surrounded my grandmother through our screens and said our goodbyes. There she lay, prone on a hospital bed, her family bathing her with words of love, gratitude, and permission to let go. Soon after our call, she was removed from life support and succumbed to complications from COVID. In the days and weeks to follow, my heart ached and broke over and over again, not only for our family, but for so many others whose future had one more empty chair.

Not a year later, I too found myself lying prone in a hospital bed suffering from complications from COVID.  While I was able to avoid being placed on a ventilator, for days I was unable to walk on my own or complete sentences of more than a few words. Fully vaxxed, a breakthrough case of COVID had my family again terrified that heartbreak and sorrow would soon make their mark and that the empty chair would be mine.

My grandmother, friends, colleagues, and thousands of others did not make it back home, but I did. To this day, I give thanks for my life and hold dear the questions that it has forced upon me as I venture into a new life, a new beginning, and, in many ways, an experience of being born again.

After my release, it became clear that long-COVID would have a grip on me for the long haul. With great

trepidation, I made the decision to leave the church I was serving. During that discernment period, the battle in my mind raged. On one side, the voices of toxic productivity and misplaced martyrdom were causing me to doubt what I was feeling, and screaming at me to push through it. On the other side, persistent whispers reminded me that I need not progress to a physical or mental crisis before tending to my health, prodding me to choose to heal before my health made the choice for me. Contrary to so many cultural cues, I thought, “I choose

me today, so we may all have a better tomorrow.”

The beauty of holding the question about being born again—raised by Nicodemus side-by-side with the promise of a thriving future made to Abraham—speaks to my soul and what it means to start again. I made the choice to start over or to be born again, not out of the immediate urgency of a crisis, but out of a yearning for what could be.

I grieve the loss of the ministry that would never be for that particular calling, but I know that it was the right act for me and for the community if either of us is to thrive in the future.

As you think through these two narratives: being born again and being promised an expansive future, ask

yourself, “Do I believe in the possibility of new beginnings?” And, when the opportunities are revealed before you, “Will I be willing to step into the promise of what may be?””


I’ve lived with the two questions Bruce poses at the end of his reflection and invite you to live with them as well.  The first question is “Do [you] believe in the possibility of new beginnings?”

This question is on the order of “are you an optimist or a pessimist?”  As a rule, the pessimist looks at life and concludes that it is bad and will only get worse.  The optimist looks at life and concludes that yes it may indeed be bad but it can and hopefully will get better.  The pessimist despairs.  The optimist hopes.

Sometimes if not most times, pessimism makes more sense.  Our planet is warm and growing warmer and a warmer planet results in multiple disruptions depending on where you happen to live on the globe — drought, floods, heat in the wrong season, cold in the wrong season, higher winds, more active storms, seasons with stronger storms.  War.  War in Europe.  War in Asia.  War in the Middle East.  War in Africa.  Political extremism threatening democratic societies, most notably Israel and the United States.  Gun violence in our nation, again.  This is all bad and it is a challenge to see how it can get better.

Our lesson from John is the story of Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was a leader of Jewish law.  He could see how the application of the law was burdening his people rather than liberating them.  He could see how the application of the law benefited some but exploited many.

But at some point along the way, he heard Jesus.  What Jesus had to say about God’s reign and what Nicodemus had come to believe about God’s reign didn’t line up.  Nicodemus wanted to know more about Jesus.  Nicodemus wanted to hear more of what Jesus had to say.

Being seen with Jesus was risky for Nicodemus.  This is why he approaches Jesus at night.  A leader of the Jewish law conferring with an itinerant, peasant rabbi was not a good look.  But Nicodemus must have concluded that the religious status quo, not to mention the state of his own soul, needed reform.

What Nicodemus learns from Jesus is this — God is love and love allows for countless do-overs.  Jesus invites Nicodemus to start over, to begin again.  Wipe the slate clean.  Chart a new path for yourself and your community.

My guess is that such counsel is easier said than done.  Anyone who has ever had to make a significant change in their life or the life of an organization knows that it is no small thing.  Staying the course is always the easier path even if it runs us into a wall or over a cliff.

Nicodemus doesn’t believe that starting anew is possible and says as much.  Jesus’ response spells out that with God and the love of God it is more than possible, it’s probable.  It was possible and probable for Nicodemus.  It’s possible and probable for us.  It’s possible and probable for the church and for the world.


Our lesson from Genesis is the story of Abram and Sarai, who will become Abraham and Sarah.  Abram and Sarai longed for a child who was never conceived.  They had lived beyond the age where a child could be conceived.  Whatever possibilities that they had held on to or hoped for were long since released.

But, then, God shows up.  And God talks about a journey on which Abram and Sarai will become the beginning of a new people, a new nation, through whom God will bless the world.

Abram and Sarai’s story, I believe, is relatable.  When the moment is darkest and the night seems endless and any hope for a better tomorrow is dashed, somehow and some way God shows up.  God always shows up.  I would go so far as to say that God was never not there.  What was missing was our awareness of God’s presence.

Of course, things don’t change instantly.  A journey is involved.  The journey can be long, arduous, circuitous.  We have to decide whether to take the journey or not and if we decide to take it we have to decide over and over again whether to stay with it or not.


This brings us to Bruce’s second question — “Will [you] be willing to step into the promise of what may be?”  Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not.  God’s invitation is always to step into all of God’s promises and become new in ways we can only begin to imagine.  Our job is to accept the invitation and take the step.

We know what was and the comfort of what was is hard to let go of.  We don’t know what will be.  Stepping into the unknown involves radical trust and even risk.  But we never take the step alone.  We always take the step with God.

So, how do we begin again?  We recognize it’s hard work.  Then, we say “yes” to God, hold God’s hand, and take that first step and then the next step and the many steps after that.  Amen.

Who Will You Listen To

Who Will You Listen To | 26 February 2023

Dan McCoig

Matthew 4:1-11 — Common English Bible

4 Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Genesis 2:15-17 — Common English Bible

15 The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. 16 The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; 17 but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!”

Genesis 3:1-7 — Common English Bible

3 The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

2 The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees 3 but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”

4 The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! 5 God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.


Amanda and I will be exploring the spiritual discipline of seeking this Lenten season.  Personally, I believe human beings are hard-wired to seek.  We seek meaning.  We seek love.  We seek belonging.  We seek wisdom.  We seek peace.  We seek God.

There’s a reason why the primary metaphor for the spiritual life is a journey.  We are pilgrims and pioneers.  We are not settlers.  We are restless.  We want and need to know what is over that hill and around that corner and through that forest and across that river and beyond the blue space.  The reality is we won’t know until we get there.

And there are a lot of voices out there guaranteeing that they have exactly what we are looking for.  They promise that they have what we are looking for.  They tell us that they know exactly what’s over the hill, around the corner, through the forest, and across the river.  Sometimes those voices get through to us and we fall under the spell of their certitude.

Here’s an exercise that I tried recently.  It was a hard one.  I suggest you try it.  Count the number of voices that you hear in a single day that make a claim for your attention.  There’s the radio.  There’s the TV.  There are social media platforms.  There are podcasts.  There are magazines.  There are books.  There are government bulletins.  By the way, I failed.  There were just too many voices to count coming through all of those outlets.


If we are by nature creatures who seek, our seeking is going to involve taking direction or guidance from someone or somewhere.  Who will we listen to?  To what will we be open?  About what will we be curious?

Today’s lessons address these questions.  The lesson from Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  There are two voices competing for Jesus’ attention and ultimately his loyalty.  The wilderness — away from the cacophony of the big city of Jerusalem — is a place where the number of voices are minimized.

One of the voices is that of the devil, a spiritual force working against God.  And the other voice, of course, is God’s.  God doesn’t speak outwardly in our lesson.  Rather, God speaks to Jesus inwardly — through his moral compass that Jesus has cultivated over the course of his life — a compass nurtured by his family, his synagogue, his faith, his friends, his neighborhood.

The devil wants Jesus to turn stones to bread.  Jesus is not interested in parlor tricks.  The devil wants Jesus to jump from the Temple’s highest point so that angels will appear to keep him from harm.  Jesus has no interest in testing God.  He doesn’t need to because he trusts God.  The devil promises Jesus all the power in the world.  All Jesus has to do is worship him.  Jesus has no interest in the kind of power the devil offers — control, might, material wealth — nor will Jesus worship anyone other than the living God of heaven and earth.

Jesus’ temptations, at least on the surface, seem so straightforward.  Who couldn’t or wouldn’t choose God?  The reality, of course, is that the kind of offers the devil makes are taken up routinely.  Sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of greed, sometimes out of an inordinate desire for power or position.  Often times the devil finds a captive audience because of ill and poorly formed spirits or malnourished minds.  This is why people of faith practice the spiritual disciplines, especially the discipline of seeking.

Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus sought God in the wilderness, but his context does.  God found Jesus in the wilderness and Jesus found God in the wilderness.  Jesus hears from God at his baptism — “You are my beloved Son” — and immediately is spirited away into the wilderness for 40 days after which he begins his public ministry with his Sermon on the Mount.

That we seek is a given.  The voices we listen to on our journey is the open question.  The gospel writers tell us the story of Jesus who listened to God’s voice and lived in faith.  The gospels encourage us to listen for the same voice and live faithfully as well.


Our lesson from Genesis is familiar.  It’s another seeking story.  It’s another temptation story.  Adam and Eve are seeking fruit in the garden.  They encounter a serpent who convinces them that the best fruit is the forbidden fruit of the tree that stands in the center of Eden.  It’s the one tree God said not to eat from.

Adam and Eve are the first human beings in the Bible who couldn’t leave well enough alone.  Eve had to eat from the tree.  Adam had to eat from the tree.  The serpent made it sound so good.  What did God know?  God was holding out on them.

The Rev. Danielle Shroyer points out that snakes symbolized transformation in the ancient world.  Their venom could be either poison or medicine.  Snakes could kill or heal.

The serpent in the garden was a killer.  The serpent didn’t physically kill Adam and Eve but the serpent did kill their innocence.  They experienced shame and guilt.  They sought to hide from God, their creator and the creator of the good garden.

Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence begins their journey east of Eden and beyond.  They discover that life outside of the garden will require discernment and wisdom and trust in God.

You don’t need me to tell you that humans do not live in paradise.  I wish we did but we don’t.  We live in a world where people hurt.  They hurt because others hurt them.  They hurt because they are ill.  They hurt because people they loved have died, leaving a hole in their lives.  They hurt because they lack life’s barest necessities — food, shelter, a sense of belonging and purpose, love.

When we hurt we will tend to hear only the most bitter or cynical voices.  Your pain is deserved.  If only you had said or done things differently.  Or, thank goodness that’s someone else’s pain and has nothing to do with me.  Everyone should look after themselves.

On our journey, as we seek God, we will discover God in the unlikeliest of places.  In the wilderness.  East of Eden.  In pain, either ours or someone else’s.

One of the key questions of the spiritual journey is “where is God?”  In Matthew’s temptation story, God was in Jesus.  In Genesis, God was in the garden and beyond the garden.  The Christian faith answers the “where is God?” question straightforwardly and simply.  God is right here, right now, at the center of our hearts, inviting us for an ever closer relationship with God and the beloved community that gathers in God’s name.

May we observe a holy Lent.  May we listen for God.