Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Not the Necessary Knowledge

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
(Deuteronomy 18:15-22)
January 29, 2012
© 2012

Ruins of 4th Century Synagogue in Capernaum built over 1st Century Synagogue where Jesus started his ministry

I. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, people followed larger than life figures who they hoped could lead them out of the crisis. They followed those who emerged into and through World War II. With the passing of that generation we have much better perspective to recognize the heroes and the villains. Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Franco, Stalin, De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt.

A. Leaders of this distinction and authority have not and may not emerge out of today’s global financial crisis and worldwide violent oppression. This is not only because of an absence of leaders of this stature but also because, especially in democratic societies, fragmented public opinion quickly dismantles those who assume prominent positions. We are living in an authority vacuum.

B. In many ways Billy Graham represents the best of the generation of church leaders of the post-World War II twentieth century. A number of them cast long shadows over Church and society. That generation is rapidly passing from the scene, and the day of personality centered ministries is changing dramatically if not fading away. I know this leaves some folk anxious about the future of the Church. I am much more hopeful. I believe that God is not only raising up a new generation of leaders for the Church, but God is also reshaping both the Church’s leadership and ministry in the twenty-first century.

C. I think 1 Corinthians 8:2 speaks powerfully to the leadership landscape of the twenty-first century. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.”

II. We are in a time of seriously rethinking pastoral authority. That denominations and seminaries are playing catch up with authors and consultants and congregations is just one sign of how dramatic this rethinking is. First Christian Church in Duncanville took the form we recognize today and flourished in that second half of the twentieth century. Now, over a decade into the twenty-first century, your next pastor will not be leading you back to the familiar patterns of the post-World War II church boom, but ahead into the unexplored territory of the twenty-first century. You will be learning how to proclaim the Gospel to a much more diverse and secular culture in which most people will be unfamiliar with the vocabulary and symbols of Christian faith and Church.

A. Skeptics have always pointed to the hypocrites in the church to justify their aversion to Christ. Every time a prominent pastor falls to a scandal of sex, money or power a cynical feeding frenzy ensues. Perhaps more than ever, pastoral authority in the twenty-first century depends on authenticity and integrity.

B. We didn’t read it today, but the selection from the Hebrew Scriptures recommended by the lectionary for today comes from Deuteronomy 18. I’ve been trying to digest it along with my breakfast every morning this week. Moses is preparing Israel for life in the Promised Land without his leadership. He tells them that God is going to raise up prophets to speak to them. Verses 20-22 say, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”

1. I certainly know that as your pastor I do not hold the office of prophet in the way Moses was speaking to Israel. I also know that I do not have what the New Testament describes as the spiritual gift of prophecy in the sense of being given revelations from God to deliver to the Church. I do believe I have the spiritual gifts of teaching, wisdom and pastor (in the sense of shepherd). Nevertheless, the words presume and presumptuously jumped off the page at me every morning this week.

2. I am acutely aware of the audacity of standing in front of God’s people every week presuming to speak on God’s behalf. I love preaching and am convinced God has called me to preach, and right now that means God has called me to preach to you. But I must tell you that every Friday as I put the message together and every Sunday as I speak to you, I am terrified that I may have presumed to say something that is not from God and one of you might take it seriously and act on it to your harm.

C. For two weeks I have been soaking in Mark 1:21-28. I believe what I have heard from God this week is to invite you to be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.

1. This is the first episode of Jesus’ public ministry recorded by Mark. He has just come from calling Simon and Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. These five – Jesus and two pairs of brothers – are the beginning of the band of disciples from which Jesus will grow the Church.

2. Tell Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

III. Be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.

A. Interestingly, Mark does not tell us what Jesus taught, only how the people in the synagogue responded to him.

1. Unlike the scribes who taught by quoting other scholars, Jesus did not teach with derived but direct authority. He spoke with the supreme confidence that his words were sufficient by themselves.

2. We do know from the teachings of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels that also unlike the scribes, Jesus teaching was not about taking sides in arcane theological debates or solving inscrutable puzzles or giving moralistic directives. Rather, Jesus’ teaching reshaped perspective and character. Jesus taught to form who you are and how you see the world.

B. The people in the synagogue see Jesus’ authority when he commands the unclean spirit to leave the man who cried out in the synagogue. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

1. Clearly this was an act of liberating love for a person who made the people feel uncomfortable. Undoubtedly they would have wanted to get him out of the synagogue as quickly as possible. Even Mark did not report what happened next for the man but only the response of the people as a confirmation of the authority of Jesus’ teaching.

2. I don’t want to distract from being astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church, and the world. In our time and setting I’m sure some of you are thinking about the man with the unclean spirit. Some may suspect that is merely the superstition of ignorant people, or you may be building arguments in your mind about those who you know are doubters.

a) 1 Corinthians 8:4 that we read today says “no idol in the world really exists.” That might seem to support the ignorant superstition argument. A careful reading of verse 10 suggests that what could cause a weaker Christian’s faith to falter is not the meat so much as seeing a fellow Christian eating in an idol temple, as this raised questions about allegiance and identity.

b) 1 Corinthians 10:20 makes the question of allegiance and identity clear with the comparison between the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. In a very real sense, taking communion is our full identification with Jesus and exclusive allegiance to him.

c) This verse implies that while no idol really exists, those who sacrifice to them are actually sacrificing to demons, suggesting an underlying spiritual reality. In a similar direction 1 Timothy 4:1 warns against “paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teaching of demons.”

d) Ephesians 6:12 expands the focus from externals and specific incidents to see a malevolent spiritual reality behind the world’s authority figures arrayed against God.

3. The unclean spirit said it knew who Jesus was in an apparent attempt to get power over him before he could destroy it. We often hear that knowledge is power, and all too often it is power to control and oppress. But the power of the unclean spirit’s knowledge is no match for Jesus’ authority.

C. Though not translated as “immediately” in this passage, Mark maintains the urgent pace of the story. At once the Sabbath came; at one there was a man with an unclean spirit; at once Jesus fame spread. Jesus’ authority was so compelling that from day one of his ministry, the word got out.

IV. Be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.

A. I have often heard this story used as a plea for authoritative preaching from today’s pastors. I have heard preachers lay claim to it by saying, “Thus saith the Lord!” Though backed up with a Scripture quote, what comes next has often struck me as more of a word from the preacher than from the Lord. Every week when you listen to my sermons, I do want you to hear from Jesus, but I want you to be sure that it’s Jesus you’re hearing and not Norm. You need to be listening to Jesus on your own so you’ve got something to measure by and compare with.

1. First, meet Jesus in the Gospels. I’ll be preaching from Mark for a few more Sundays until and a little into Lent. Why not make a point to reading through Mark several times by the end of February?

2. Second, balance your spiritual diet by reading other parts of Scripture too: Epistles, Prophets, Psalms. That will give you a context for understanding Jesus, and Jesus will cue you how to understand the rest of Scripture.

3. Third, pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate your reading so it is not just gathering information about Jesus but a real personal encounter with him. This calls for humility for preacher and listener alike.

4. Fourth, put the knowledge you gain in the context of love. 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” If you are really hearing Jesus’ authoritative teaching, it will not lead to rigid judgmentalism but to love, especially love for the people who are hard to love, the people who make you uncomfortable.

B. When we think of teaching, we tend to focus on gathering information and following instructions. If we are to be astounded at the authority of Jesus, we need to slow down and savor his teaching and marvel at his action in ourselves, the Church and the world. Such contemplation will shape and nourish us to grow into Jesus. We will not so much be asking “What would Jesus do?” as we will overflow with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

“Time’s Up!”

1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
January 22, 2012
© 2012 Norman Stolpe

I. Monday, January 9 was a full day for me. Besides the usual consolidating Sunday’s conversations and organizing for a new week, a few important pastoral needs called for my attention. I had tried to put together a plan for the day so I could cover all the bases, but each one took just a little longer than I intended. I had planned to go to Charlton Hospital to see Howard Mims at 3:00 PM, but it was after 4:00 PM before I got there. Running behind schedule accentuated my anxiety about meeting someone for the first time when they were a hospital patient. A little bewildered, I stepped off the elevator looking for directional signs to Howard’s room. There, down the hallway was Christine who broke into a smile and waved to me. As we approached each other, she introduced me to her daughter, Tina. After chatting a few moments, Christine walked with me to Howard’s room and introduced me to him. After a pleasant visit, Christine walked with me to the parking lot, and we talked about the timing of my visit. Had I come at 3:00 PM as I intended, she would not have been there. Had I been just a couple of minutes later we would have passed each other on adjacent elevators. Christine said she was sure God I sent me at just the right time for her and for Howard. It felt like just the right time for me as well. I want to assure you that I respect pastoral confidentiality. I would not tell you what I spoke about with Howard and Christine. Christine gave me permission to tell you this story of timing.

A. January 9 is a significant day in the Stolpe family. When I was a college student I fell while rock climbing on January 9. A few years later my mother had significant surgery on her arthritic feet on January 9. When Erik was a toddler, Candy slipped on ice on our New Jersey driveway, fell and broke her ankle on January 9. It took two surgeries and a couple of years for recovery. Does it mean anything that I was visiting Howard Mims on January 9? I don’t think so, but we all ask questions about the timing of events in our lives. Is it all coincidence or does God have a hand in synchronizing our days, hours and minutes? Did God delay my schedule just enough to meet Christine at the hospital on January 9?

B. We like to give God credit when timing seems to work out well, but what about what seems like bad timing. I was a part-time associate pastor for 3 years in the church I served in Illinois. We stayed in that church when I moved to full-time with a marriage and family ministry, but I knew God had called me to pastoral ministry. On Easter Sunday 1980 we anticipated telling the congregation I had accepted the call to First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Holly, New Jersey. At the end of the service, before the benediction, the pastor, had everyone sit down and read his resignation as he was moving to a mission ministry in Florida. Several people who knew I was searching for a pastoral ministry said, “With Dave leaving, now you could become our pastor.” My reaction was, “If we had known about this even a few days earlier that might have been true, but we are committed to FPC in NJ.” I continued to have twinges of regret and asking “What if?” With 30+ years of perspective, we view that day with thanks. Had we stayed with that congregation in Illinois, we would have been far poorer in people and experiences God has brought into our lives. I’d like to think the people God sent us to serve in NJ, WI and TX are also thankful.

C. I urge you to seize your decisive moment immediately! Follow Jesus on your next adventure.

II. Mark 1:14-20 tells how Jesus started preaching at a precise decisive moment. Last week in John 1 we considered how John the Baptizer pointed his disciples to Jesus. Andrew found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus. Philip invited Nathanael to come and see Jesus. Perhaps only a few days, at most a few weeks later, Jesus called some of those John the Baptizer had introduced to him follow him as his disciples.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
A. We don’t know what Aramaic words Jesus used to say, “The time is fulfilled” in verse 15, but Mark uses a distinctive Greek word: kairos. This is “time,” not in the sense of chronology (that would be chronos), the passing of time, but as this is the time, the decisive moment.

1. Jesus did not begin to proclaim the good news of God until John the Baptizer was arrested. Jesus was not in competition with John but started exactly where John left off, with exactly the same message, “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent!” Jesus built on that to add, “Follow me and fish for people.” Getting yourself squared away with God is only the start. Now you are to bring other people to God too.

2. Jesus couldn’t begin until John finished his ministry. We shudder at how Herod ended John’s ministry with lust and power driven jealous violence. How could evil Herod’s arrest of John fit God’s timing for the decisive moment for Jesus to begin his ministry?

B. In Roman occupied Palestine, Jewish rabbis did not recruit students. Those who were attracted to a particular rabbi would ask if they could become a disciple and the rabbi would grant or refuse permission. Jesus broke this mold by calling disciples to follow him. This along with Jesus’ message that the time was fulfilled, gave an urgency to his call to “follow me!”

1. Simon and Andrew immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. A little farther down the beach, Jesus sees James and John and immediately calls them.

2. Though not always translated “immediately,” some form of euthus occurs 41 times in Mark. Jesus brings the decisive moment. Seize it immediately!

C. The 1 Corinthians passages the lectionary suggests to go with the stories from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark may seem cryptic and disconnected. We have a hard time figuring out what to do with them. When 1 Corinthians 7:29 says that “the time is short,” it uses kairos not chronos. It is not saying that time is passing quickly; it is saying the decisive moment is urgent, seize it immediately without getting distracted.

D. Jesus still calls you to seize your decisive moment immediately! Follow Jesus on your next adventure.

III. Jesus is calling First Christian Church of Duncanville to follow him at this decisive moment.

A. Calling a new pastor is always a decisive moment for a congregation. With Eldon Irving and Mike Oden, you have a long time of pastoral stability. You will be calling a pastor who will lead you into a new era of ministry for a decade or more. This pastor will invariably guide you onto new, unfamiliar and even uncomfortable paths to follow Jesus. This pastor will prod you out of complacency into urgency. “This in the decisive moment. Don’t wait around. Seize the decisive moment immediately!” I’m praying for God to send you a pastor whose call to follow Jesus will be so compelling that you will immediately leave anything that holds you back from following Jesus with enthusiastic abandon.

B. While pastoral leadership is important, congregational followership may be even more critical. I recently read an article about congregational followership that I wrote about for this week’s newsletter. I see some exciting signs of your decisive moment as a congregation.

1. Many people in the congregation, as especially among both Board and Elder leadership exude a spirit of expectation, believing God is doing a new work.

2. You have a cadre of hard working people who assume and fulfill many responsibilities not just because they have to get done but because they get joy out of serving. I hear a lot more “we” and “us” than “they” and “them.” This is your church, not a religious commodity of which you are a consumer.

3. You have new people coming into the life of the congregation, a number of whom you have brought into leadership. That promotes freshness and adventure. You don’t need to learn how to welcome new folk, you only need to accelerate your hospitality for growth to accelerate.

4. I know ministry with youth and children has been a struggle for a while, but I want to commend those who have jumped in to serve there and the enthusiastic support you have given Emily. One of my goals while I am with you is to make youth visible in worship, not just attendance but participation and leadership. Don’t let past disappointments or discouragement keep you from seizing this decisive moment for children and youth.

5. Perhaps most powerfully, I am increasingly aware of spiritual depth and vitality in this congregation. I keep hearing stories of profound prayer. I keep hearing people tell me what they are learning from Scripture. I keep hearing of awareness of the subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit.
C. First Christian Church, seize your decisive moment immediately! Follow Jesus on your next adventure.

IV. Cynthia Weems is the pastor of 115 year old First United Methodist Church, one of two United Methodist Churches that were just a couple of blocks apart in downtown Miami, Florida. One was a “northern” church and the other a “southern” church. Separated by the Civil War, they remained separate congregations even after denominational unity in 1939. Then one Saturday night in 1965 a 14 year old escapee from a New York reform school set fire to one of the churches. On Sunday morning the pastor scribbled a big sign on what remained of the front door, “Burned out but fired up! Service as usual.” That morning the two congregations worshipped together in the undamaged building. (Christian Century, January 11, 2012, p. 21) The destructive vandalism of the fire accomplished what a century of talk had not been able to do. That was their decisive moment. They seized it immediately. The new congregation was multi-ethnic at just the time the country and Church needed inter-racial leadership. They pioneered urban ministries to homeless and other needy people. They have stayed in the city fishing for people when other congregations moved to the more comfortable suburbs.

A. In what decisive moment is Jesus calling you to follow him personally and immediately?

1. Maybe it’s not an evil Herod or a 14 year old vandal that is putting you at a crossroads questioning the timing of the events in circumstances you are facing.

2. Yet, this might be your decisive moment to immediately follow Jesus. When the time seems urgent, you are out of your comfortable routine. Jesus says, “Follow me on your next adventure.”

B. Or perhaps you are comfortable right where you are. You’re not looking for any crossroads or crises. Jesus says, “Repent and believe in the good news,” and you protest that you’re not interested in repenting. You haven’t done anything all that bad. “Can’t I just wait? What’s the hurry?” Leaving your nets and boats is just too wasteful, too frightening.

C. Either way, Jesus says, “Follow me. Let’s go fishing for people.”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

“You’re the One!”

1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
January 15, 2012
© 2012 Norman Stolpe

I. Did you catch one of Ed and Lisa Young’s TV interviews about their “Sexperiment” book and Friday’s 24 hour “bed-in” on the roof of Fellowship Church? Did you think, “Creative outreach or publicity stunt?” I don’t know if you’re relieved or disappointed, but Candy and I will not be competing with the Youngs. When older congregations whose current life doesn’t seem to measure up to the memories of a glorious past, they are tempted to compare themselves to newer congregations that seem to be overflowing with young people. “We can never compete with that!” Envy feeds criticism and defeatism. Imitation stifles creativity and authenticity. Even in the church saturated DFW Metroplex, there are so many unchurched and dechurched people that even if every congregation was going full out with evangelistic outreach, there would be more than enough people to go around. I am convinced that there are plenty of spiritual seekers and wounded wanderers who would fit into 1st Christian Church that this congregation could anticipate a full decade of vigorous growth. We have no reason to be the least bit concerned about the competition!

A. A post from Rachel Held Evans’ blog has been circulating around the internet this week. She writes, “I want to be part of an un-cool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus, and like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool.” She says that when she goes to a “cool church” (define that however you like) she gets a “creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks. … Cool congregations can get so wrapped up in the ‘performance’ of church that they forget to actually be the church. We’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for” the people Jesus attracted who were “mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdoes, poor people, sick people and crazy people. … Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, other on the outside, but we’re all broken. We’re all un-cool. We’re all in need of a Savior.” http://rachelheldevans.com/blessed-are-the-uncool

B. First Christian Church of Duncanville can grow in the next decade with a new pastor, not with flashy preaching or jazzy programs but by inviting people to come and see Jesus.

C. Whether they are spiritual seekers or wounded wanderers, you can invite people to come and see Jesus in First Christian Church Duncanville, Mark’s Gospel, and daring prayer.

II. I’d like you to turn to John 1:19: pew Bible, it’s on page 87.

A. Most of John’s Gospel is theological not chronological, but here John gives us a sequence of four consecutive days to show us how Jesus’ first disciples found that he is the one!

1. On the first day (v. 19), Priests and Pharisees question John the Baptizer and he tells them he is not the Messiah, but among them stands one they don’t know who will come after John, presumably he is the Messiah. (v. 26)

2. The second day (v. 29), John sees Jesus and identifies him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Apparently referring to Jesus’ baptism, which is not reported in this Gospel, John says he saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain on Jesus (v. 32), which he takes as a sign that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (v. 34), so John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God. (v. 35)

3. On the third day (v. 35) Jesus again walked by John and he again identifies him as the Lamb of God. Two of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus. Inquiring about where Jesus is staying, he replies by inviting them to “come and see.” (v. 39) One of them is Andrew who found his brother Simon and told him he had found the Messiah. (v. 41) Andrew offers no explanation or proof that Jesus is the Messiah, he simply brings Simon to Jesus. (v. 42)

B. John 1:43-51 continues to show finding and following.The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”III. As this story unfolds, Jesus is the one – the one who does the finding, even as those he finds think they have found him – the one for whom all Israel had been waiting. Pay attention to finding and following in this story.A. In those first three day, John the Baptizer said that he was not the one, but that the one was already standing among them, even though they didn’t know it. Twice when Jesus comes by John said, “He’s the one!” Andrew follows Jesus and at Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” he finds that Jesus is the one. Andrew then finds his brother Simon and tells him we have found the Messiah – he’s the one! He brings Simon to Jesus so he can see for himself.B. Jesus found Philip and says, “Follow me.” Just like Andrew, Simon and John the Baptizer’s other disciple, Philip follows Jesus. He knew Jesus was the one.

C. Following Jesus’ example with him, Andrew finds Nathanael. He said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” That’s how Philip told Nathanael that Jesus was the one – the Messiah – Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

D. Nathanael couldn’t imagine anything good or significant coming from obscure, insignificant Nazareth, much less the one – the Messiah. Philip didn’t argue with Nathanael, he only invited him to “come and see.”

1. Jesus did not even mention much less criticize Nathanael’s skepticism. Rather, Jesus commended Nathanael’s integrity.

2. Jesus’ seemingly prophetic vision of Nathanael under the fig tree convinces Nathanael that Jesus is the one – the Son of God, the King of Israel. Presumably Jesus could have picked out any detail from Nathanael’s day before Philip called him, so why the fig tree? Zechariah 3:10 makes this a sign of the peace and plenty of the Messianic Kingdom. “On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So the place to meditate on the prophetic Scriptures and pray for the Messianic Kingdom was sitting under a fig tree. Perhaps Nathanael was praying for the Messiah to come when Philip told him he had found the one – the Messiah!

3. Nathanael’s reaction to a Messiah from Nazareth may not have been derision as much as surprise. Why would the Messiah come from such humble, paltry roots? How could the Messiah be so un-cool? By telling Nathanael he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus may have been telling him, you did not find me but I found you, just as I found Philip and Andrew.

IV. The examples of Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael guide us in how to introduce the people we know to Jesus. Whether they are spiritual seekers or wounded wanderers, you can invite people to come and see Jesus in First Christian Church Duncanville, Mark’s Gospel, and daring prayer.

A. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley, the towering agnostic intellect of his generation, was a guest at a country house. Sunday came round, and most of the guests prepared to go to church; but, very naturally, Huxley did not propose to go. He approached a guest known to have a simple, radiant Christian faith. He said to him, “Suppose you don’t go to church today. Suppose you stay here and tell me quite simply what your Christian faith means to you and why you are a Christian.” “But,” the man said, “You could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.” Huxley said gently, “I don’t want to argue with you; I just want you to tell me simply what this Christ means to you.” The man stayed and told Huxley most simply of his faith. When he finished there were tears in the agnostic’s eyes. “I would give my right hand if only I could believe that.” (Barclay’s Commentary on John, volume 1, page 92)

B. When Andrew brought Simon to Jesus and Philip invited Nathanael to “come and see,” they knew they couldn’t argue anyone into recognizing that Jesus is the one. All they had to do was give them a chance to see Jesus for themselves. Similarly, we don’t have to convince anyone to believe anything about Jesus. All we have to do is invite them to “come and see.” Jesus will do the rest.

C. Yes, Andrew found Simon, and Philip found Nathanael. However, Jesus found all of them first! So if Jesus is the one doing the finding, we can relax. All we have to do is be God’s hospitality team inviting people to come and see Jesus. The Holy Spirit will do the rest, and do it much better than we could anyway.

D. Where can we invite people so they can come and see Jesus? I’m going to suggest three very specific invitations: First Christian Church of Duncanville, the Gospel of Mark and a daring prayer.

1. First Christian Church of Duncanville. Trying to present a perfect picture of the church will only make the un-cool people feel unwelcome. Just let people know that you know you need Jesus’ grace and have received it. The people Jesus is finding don’t care much about preaching and programs. Spiritual seekers just want to find the one – the one they are looking for even if they don’t know it. The wounded wanderers don’t want to see a bunch of people who have it all together. They want to know that Jesus has healed people who are as messed up as they are. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do everything the best we can, only that if people are paying attention to what a great job we’re doing, they won’t see Jesus. But if we’re looking at Jesus, they will too.

2. Mark’s Gospel. Nothing can substitute for meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospels. People who know nothing about the Bible and try to read it may start in Genesis and get bogged down long before they get to Jesus. I usually suggest that people who are just starting to read Mark’s Gospel. It is short and moves fast. They could read it in one sitting on a relaxed afternoon. Mark has a minimal amount of cultural and theological stuff to wade through. It is mostly Jesus in action. If you’re inviting someone to come and see Jesus, offer to read Mark with them. Don’t try a complete Bible study, just say, “Let’s read a couple of chapters and get together to talk about how we can see Jesus.” I have a few paperback Marks in Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase. If you’d like one to give a friend, I’d be happy to give one to you.

3. A Daring Prayer. I got to know Allan Eubank during the years I served at Central Christian Church. He has served for fifty years in Thailand. In that Buddhist culture, he does not try to argue the superiority of Christianity, he simply invites people to a daring prayer. “Jesus, if you’re real and I’m supposed to be following you, I want you to do something specific that changes my life that could only come from you.”

E. Did you notice that the places we can invite people to come and see Jesus are the same places where we meet Jesus: Scripture, prayer and church?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ruler from Ancient Days

Micah 5:2-5a; Matthew 2:1-12
January 8, 2012
© 2012 Norman Stolpe
I. Happy Epiphany Sunday! And Happy New Year! May 2012 reveal unexpected happiness. It seems to be a year of looking for happier alternatives to what we had in 2011.
A. In the 2008 election cycle the financial scandal and crisis had a lot of people looking for an alternative to George W. Bush. Now in the 2012 election cycle at least the Republicans are looking for an alternative to Barack Obama. As the primary season kicks off, some Republicans are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney.
B. In the Arab Spring of 2011, many people in the Muslim World were looking for an alternative to oppressive dictatorships. In 2012 they may be looking to alternatives to Islamist or secular democracies.
C. What alternatives are you looking for in 2012?
1. An improvement in the economy? A better job?
2. Resolution of a health concern?
3. Joy in a relationship?
4. All else being equal, you should expect to have a new pastor in 2012.5.
If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
II. Matthew 2:1-12 tells the familiar if mysterious story of the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus. King Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, the people of Jerusalem and of course the Magi were all looking for some kind of alternative that year. Do you think they each got what they were looking for?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
A. King Herod was looking for rumors of threats – real or imagined – to the power and position of his throne. He seemed to be the first and maybe only one who connected the Magi asking about a child born King of the Jews to the promised Messiah. He seemed to believe that this Messiah may very well have been born. But he completely failed to see that the Messiah could liberate him from the prison of his jealousy, paranoia and regret for rash responses to rumors that had prompted him to kill even his favorite wife and his sons. King Herod somehow believed the prophecy of God’s Messiah, the Ruler from Ancient Days, but still believed he could eliminate him and cling to his throne.
B. The Chief Priests and the Scribes, on the other hand, had all of the correct information about the coming Messiah, but they failed completely to connect the dots between the foreign visitors to Jerusalem, the frightening rumors circulating in the city and Herod’s inquiry about the birthplace of the Messiah to even suspect that the Messiah might actually have been born. Despite their scholarly knowledge, they were not looking for the Messiah; they were looking to maintain their positions of prestige and control.
C. The people of Jerusalem were looking for stability and security. Like people today who live under violent dictators who are afraid of uprisings, the people of Jerusalem were so afraid of the crackdown that the rumors of the birth of the Messiah did not inspire hope but anxiety. They were so terrorized by King Herod that they missed that the one who could liberate them had been born.
D. Only the Magi were looking for the King of the Jews. Matthew says almost nothing about what they knew about this child. Did they understand Hebrew messianic hope? Did they know enough Hebrew Scripture to expect the Ruler from Ancient Days? Yet, when they enter the humble home where the infant Jesus was with Mary his mother, they show no hesitancy about having found the one whom they were looking for.
E. If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
III. Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus is steeped in mystery. In our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic culture, we try to unravel the mystery and come up with an explanation for every detail of the story.
A. Matthew and Luke each connect Jesus with Bethlehem and Nazareth, but they do it in dramatically different ways. We want to ask: which one was right or how can we merge these into a single consistent narrative? Why don’t Mark and John’s Gospels tell us about the birth of Jesus? Why don’t these details that seem so vivid and important to Matthew and Luke show up anywhere else in the New Testament?
B. Why can’t we find anything in secular history to corroborate the census of Caesar Augustus or the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem? Where is the boundary between history as we know it and legend?
C. Who were these Magi? Where did they come from? Why does Matthew accept their use of astrology that is so consistently condemned in the rest of the Bible?
D. Perhaps most intriguing is trying to identify the star that prompted the Magi to travel to Judea. Astronomical calendars have been correlated with government records to see if a comet or a planetary conjunction might have been the star, but none are fully satisfactory. Picturesque Christmas cards notwithstanding, the Gospel says nothing about the Magi following the star across the desert. They clearly came from far east of Jerusalem, and seeing the star at its rising, that would have been farther east yet. They don’t seem to have seen it after leaving their home country until after the leave King Herod and see it stop over the place where Jesus was.
1. In Babylonian cosmology, a star may be the angel of a great person guiding and protecting them. Whether the star was such an angel, it certainly was God’s messenger announcing to them the birth of Jesus.
2. When I read about this angel and star connection, I was reminded of the old man Ramandu that the crew of the Dawn Treader meet on their voyage in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories.
“And are we near the World’s End now, Sir?” [Caspian asked the Old Man.] “Have you any knowledge of the seas and lands farther east than this?”
“I saw them long ago,” said the Old Man, “but it was from a great height. I cannot tell you such things as sailors need to know.”
“Do you mean you were flying in the air?” Eustace blurted out.
“I was a long way above the air, my son,” replied the Old Man. “I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare are one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edumnd under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“Aren’t you a star any longer?” asked Lucy.
“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “when I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fireberry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fireberry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child was that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star if a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” (pp. 179-180)
E. I would like to suggest to you today that rather than trying to solve the mystery of the Magi, that we savor it. Let it prompt us to awe and wonder in much the same way that candlelight is more romantic than florescent lamps.
IV. If you are looking for Jesus in 2012, he will find you. If you are looking for something else, you will find it.
A. Several years ago I read a book aimed at college students. The title said it all: God’s Will Is Not Lost. God is not playing a shell game with us to keep us from finding God or God’s guidance. God did not hide the infant Jesus. He was out in plain view for all who would look in the right place.
1. In Matthew’s story of the Magi, those who should have recognized the messianic signs missed them because they were looking for something else.
2. But the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Rule from Ancient days was revealed to foreigners who didn’t even seem to have Scripture but they recognize him. Thus, the Magi are celebrated at Epiphany. Epiphany means the revealing or the uncovering.
B. The story of the Magi tells us that we only need to look for Jesus and he will find us. Yes! Jesus will find you!
1. Sometimes in the expected places: Scripture, prayer, the worshipping community of the Church. But like King Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, and the People of Jerusalem, we can have all of this and miss Jesus if we are looking for something else.
2. So for Jesus to meet us in the unexpected is probably not so surprising. But we have to be looking for him and not be preoccupied with looking for something that covers him up and hides him.
C. So are you looking for Jesus in 2012 or are you looking for something else? I can tell you that no matter who you want to vote for or who is elected in 2012, you will be disappointed. No matter how prosperous and healthy you and your family are in 2012, you will still face limits. No matter who your new pastor is, you will find strengths and weaknesses. But if you are looking for Jesus in 2012, just when you least expect it, God will surprise you and you’ll exclaim, “That was Jesus!”