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Crystal Cathedral

Main Service Times: Main - 9:30 & 11:00 AM | Evening - 7:00 PM | Arabic - 1:15 PM

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Jesus Christ: God's Greatest Gift

By Dr. Steven Berry

2204 2020-04-29

Dr. Steven Berry was the senior minister of the First Congregational Church in Manchester, Vermont, where he currently lives with his wife, Carol. He has been a much sought-after guest pastor, having preached at the Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, the Riverside Church in New York City, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and more.

It's a joy and a pleasure to be here with you today as I look out at you and think of your lives and how God touches us, calls us His own. We have just experienced Easter, a time in the church calendar year that reminds us of the difficulty of life. And I want to share with you a portion of scripture today that will inform the words which I speak.

After the empty tomb, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and then He appears to the disciples. From John chapter 20, verses 19 through 23: "On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together…" Were the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders? "…Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.' After He said this, He showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again, Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.' And with that, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, their sins are forgiven. If you do not forgive, they're not forgiven.'" The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Please join with me in prayer. Gracious God, we ask that Your Holy Spirit come upon us this day. We ask that we feel Your presence in our midst, even as we have been lifted up by the choir and the music from Jennifer, the beautiful words that we've heard. Inspire us, again, to renew our commitment to You and to know that You love us, that You're here for us, and that we are Your beloved. We offer this prayer in Jesus' name. Amen.

Well, as I said, it's a joy being with you today. I have been to the Crystal Cathedral a number of times because I used to live right up the street in Los Angeles, California. I was the senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, that historical parish, for over a decade. I've been in city ministry for 30 years and then I returned to my roots to Vermont, and that's where I live now. So, I come here today with thanksgiving in my heart to all of you and for the opportunity to share the Good News of the message of Jesus Christ with you today.

Southern California's such a beautiful place. Having lived here, I'm refreshed when I come back. I look out on a clear day like this and I see the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and their snow-covered peaks. If I wanted to, I can get in the car, I can drive down the road, and I can be at the ocean in a matter of minutes. And who wouldn't like to have Disneyland in their neighborhood, particularly if you have children. It's always nice to go to Disneyland.

There are other things about Los Angeles, I have to tell you, that I don't miss so much. I think that there's more asphalt and concrete in Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Diego county than there is in the entire state of Vermont. I can vouch for this from the perspective of the road system in Vermont. There are eight thousand unpaved miles of road in Vermont. And there are only six thousand paved roads, so that tells you something. I know it's hard to grasp that, but this is the condition of that part of the world.

They also have four seasons, which may be difficult for some in Southern California to believe. And in Vermont, there is a fifth season. Do you know what that season is, anyone? It's called mud season. There's a short time between winter and spring. And it's an unbearably difficult time, actually. And people have to deal with it. You know there has been saying that men have gone out in the early morning on the back roads of Vermont during mud season with their rigs and some have never been seen again, or their rigs. So mud season touches every life.

I'd like to describe to you what mud season is. It begins when the ground begins to warm and the earth that hardens with the cold of winter begins to thaw. The ground thaws, of course, from the top down. And as it warms the top, the moisture gets trapped above the frozen layer below, several feet down. The moisture has no place to go, so the result is muck and mud. And sometimes the mud is three or four feet deep. There needs to be a reminder, occasionally, that we live in the world and mud season is one of those reminders.

Oh yes, we get reminders because, in reality, mud season is a recurrent theme. It's a time in life that we all experience no matter where we live. It happens in Southern California as well as in Vermont - a time between winter and spring, a season in life that is really a mess, a time when you look to your right or your left and you see there a lost muffler by the side of the road, or cattle skulls strewn along some faraway trail in the Mohave. Now these are strewn dreams. These realities happen sometimes when dreams are shattered, strewn by the wayside.

When I think of the time right after the crucifixion of Jesus, I'm reminded of mud season. I think of how the disciples must have felt in their anguish, their fear, their confusion, and their disbelief. I relate mud season to a time of disease, of discomfort. It is a euphemism about loss. I don't think it matters where you live. You experience mud season in the Alps. You experience it in the Serengeti. You experience it somewhere in the east or somewhere in the west. It doesn't matter whether you're in an inner city or whether you live in a remote part of the country, mud season is universal, in some sense, and it can happen at any time and any place.

Here in our homeland during the recession, we all know those who have lost their jobs or their homes or both. We know people who have lost their health or one who has lost a son or daughter in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan. We know people who have lost their hope, who have lost their faith. Perhaps something like that has happened to you. Perhaps you are experiencing loss today. Mud season is an in-between time - a time of oscillating confusion, a period of hardship, a low time when we feel stuck in a place devoid of joy. It's an experience as old as time. And I recall it at this time of year because it is a theme that happens during holy week, central to our own faith, the story of Jesus' crucifixion; Jesus of Nazareth's death.

When we read the gospel, we are struck by the things that happened to Him. Even nonbelievers read the story and are deeply troubled. Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy. He was put on trial, and sentenced to death by people in the power system, the domination system of religion and politics. On the way to His own execution, He was spat upon, He was tortured, beaten. His friends abandoned Him. He was murdered in a garbage dump outside the city so that passersby entering Jerusalem could see Him, and they would be reminded, they would be warned what happens to people who don't conform to the religious authorities and to the state.

That's what happened in Palestine 2000 years ago. And in spite of the healings, despite the beautiful messages, the preaching, the care, the casting out of demons, the good words, the miracles, Jesus wasn't immune from trouble. Neither were His disciples. And neither are we.

Albert Schweitzer said this statement that applies: "If you want to do good in the world, do not expect others to roll stones out of your path. They may do just the opposite." It's the way with Jesus. There are difficult truths imparted by scripture. One of which is that the Son of man must suffer many things and be rejected and killed, and that if anyone is to follow, they must take up their crosses themselves and do so.

How can we understand? How can we understand this when we are in the midst of trouble? I think it's impossible. I don't think that we can grasp that the plan for redemption is woven into every calamity and every tragedy. But just because we do not understand, just because we don't know God's plan does not mean that God is not working. "Eye has not seen, or ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

My point is that it is incredibly difficult to discern that spring is around the corner when everything feels like it's nuclear winter. My own experience has taught me this time and again over the years, and I'd just like to share one story from that season of my life.

In 1975, I began my ministry. That's why I have so much white hair now. I started in a remote section in northern Vermont. It was shortly before Easter when the mother of a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy dropped dead of a brain aneurysm. These children were in my youth program. I felt it was important to help them with the funeral experience, and beyond that, to watch closely over the children. So my wife and I decided that during the spring break coming up, we would take them to Massachusetts for a little respite, and that's what we did. We shared with them, we cared for them, and I invited them into the home of my mother and father. There were many times of laughter. There was also a lot of grief and tears. There was this big mix going on. Finally, when the week was up, we drove back to Vermont. It was that season I talked about just a few moments ago as mud season.

The winter snow was beginning to melt and run off the mountains. It was cold as the night approached as we made our way into the northeast kingdom. And the wind was whipping, and the trees were bending, and our car was feeling it as we went up the road. After we dropped off the children, we came back to the little parsonage and unpacked our belongings. When I went across the dooryard to the general store, people in the store had long faces; they looked distressed and worried. I asked, "What's happened? What's going on?"

One responded, "The boy up the street, you know, up the road, he went missing about two hours ago. Went out just before supper and he didn't return, and the men have gotten together a search party to go and find the boy."

So, I got in my car, and I drove over to the family's home. When I got out of the car, the men in the search party were there, and I could see what had happened. They asked me if I would go and give the parents the news. And I did. Their boy had fallen into the stream caused by the runoff. In the cold, he had been shocked and had drowned.

This terrible tragedy threw the boy's mother, who was pregnant with her second child, into labor three months early. We rushed her to the hospital, and a baby was born - two and a half pounds. It was day to day whether or not he would make it. The baby could have fit right into the palm of my hand.

I will never forget that time. I was a young clergyman. My faith was being tested as was that of those around me, and personally I found it to be terribly difficult. I wasn't any theologian. I was a 25-year-old responding to tragedy as best I could, and in a humble spirit, I prayed to God to help me help people.

I am convinced that God's hand was at work because the community began to rally around this family. They attended to the needs of the parents. They brought food, and they took the parents to the hospital, an hour's drive away, to see the baby. They gathered in spontaneous prayer groups. It was an extraordinary affirmation that death was not in control. Here was a community going through the darkest of times. But through it all, I learned that death is not the end of life. Rather resurrection is the end of death.

Two months later, the two-pound baby reached three pounds, and we celebrated at the hospital with a three-pound party. The baby was out of the woods. He would grow strong and become capable.

The boy and the girl who lost their mother stepped out of their grief to help others as they joined in visiting the lonely shut-ins, doing jobs in people's homes that they were no longer able to do, delivering food baskets through three feet of snow to families in need.

Whatever self-centered sufferings I had, or anyone in the community had, began to be replaced by concern for the needs of others and the desire to do what was in their best welfare. As I observed this, the problems I saw began to be viewed in a larger framework. Of some indeterminate mystic meaning, there was something fantastic happening. It was true resurrection power. The realization that the most malignant forces of darkness had not…could not…overcome the love of God.

And that's the story that Jennifer Shaw just told a moment ago. And that's the story of your life, too. The great love of God will help you and will carry you through. It is the most extraordinary thing, this love of God. He loves you and has put His mark on you. And He claims you as His own.

In mud season, the days get up to about 43 degrees and the nights go down to the teens and twenties. The woods are cold. There are no leaves, no buds on the grey branches. Still the sap runs in the ancient maple trees. There are unseen forces at work behind the flow of the sap in the dark and the gloom. Something sweet awaits. I have collected sap buckets, I've been to the sugarhouse, and I've helped boil the sap to make Vermont maple syrup. I know how this works. This is also part of mud season.

Paul wrote, "Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

After Jesus' resurrection, He appeared. The doors were locked, but He came through them. The fearful disciples were inside, but there He was standing among them, and Jesus said, "Peace be with you." He showed them His hands and His side. The disciples rejoiced and Jesus said again to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so I send you." What did He say? What did Jesus say? He said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, I send you." When He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit."

Dear friends, receive the Holy Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit lift you from your struggles, and give you comfort and blessed assurance that Christ the Lord has risen…that your Redeemer lives. Amen.

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