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, June 29, 2012

To Touch the Heart of God

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Mark 5:24b-34
July 1, 2012
© 2012

I.                David’s eloquent lament for Saul and Jonathan is all the more stunning knowing how Saul had hounded David and would have killed him if he could have. David gave no hint of animosity toward Saul, though Saul had disgraced the throne of Israel. Knowing that David could not have become king as long as Jonathan was alive, makes David’s expression of love for Jonathan exquisite irony. What profound respect David expressed for God’s anointing of Saul, for the office of king, for Saul’s humanity and their kinship as fellow Israelites!

A.           Last fall when I explained how I wanted us to listen for the voice of God in the Scripture readings suggested by the lectionary, none of us could have known that this passage would come the week of T's death. As I have pondered David’s lament, I believe God has been teaching me something about how to grieve an awkward death with dignity and respect.

B.            In national tragedies, the President becomes a secular chaplain. We may not remember the rest of the speech, but the last line of Ronald Regan’s speech on January 28, 1986 after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger still rings familiar. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

1.              Those memorable words were actually from the first and last lines of a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee. He was a 19 year old pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was born in Shanghai, China to missionary parents.

2.              In July 1941 he was sent to England for combat duty. In August he sent his parents a copy of his poem High Flight. In December his Spitfire plane collided with another plane, and he crashed to his death.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I have trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

C.            While David could never have imagined flying, I believe his lament for Saul and Jonathan captures the emotion of longing to touch the face of God, though God is not specifically mentioned.

II.            We who have an intimate faith relationship with God ache to go even deeper, to touch the heart of God.

A.           From the heart of God we receive love.

B.            From the heart of God power is released.

C.            Touch with faith to access the love and power of the heart of God.

III.       Mark 5:24-34 tells how a woman tried to get Jesus to heal her without being noticed by barely touching his clothes. After healing the Gadarene Demoniac, the boat with Jesus and his disciples returned to the Jewish side the Sea of Galilee. When he stepped ashore a large crowd waited for him, and Jairus the synagogue leader begged Jesus to come heal his daughter who was at the point of death. Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”32He looked all around to see who had done it.33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

A.           This large crowd was following Jesus on an urgent, life and death errand. If he did not hurry, Jairus’ daughter might die. No one noticed the woman sneak up behind Jesus to touch is cloak as discretely as possible. She has no intention of interrupting Jesus’ errand of mercy. When she touched Jesus’ cloak, immediately her hemorrhage stopped and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

1.              Almost all of the commentators I read suggested that this woman was ignorant and superstitious to think that by touching Jesus clothes she could be healed. Jesus says nothing to correct her misconception but commends her faith. I can’t help wondering if the commentators have not imposed their scientific presuppositions and missed the power of touch.

2.              Acts 5 tells how people in Jerusalem “carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them, … and they were all cured.” In Acts 19 “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul (in Ephesus),12 so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them.” While these do not seem to have become standard practices in the early church, they do suggest that the physical and spiritually are intricately interwoven, and the physical can open the way for the spiritual.

B.            Like the disciples, I doubt that Jesus felt the woman’s discrete touch of his cloak with the crowd pressing in on him. When she touched Jesus’ cloak, he was immediately aware that power had gone forth from him. How could he let her interrupt his response to such a pressing need?

1.              I find it curious that Jesus was so keenly aware that power had gone forth from him and so unaware of to whom it had gone. But he was aware that the faith conveyed by her touch released his power.

2.              Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has made you well.” Unlike many self-proclaimed “faith-healers,” Jesus did not take credit and say, “I have made you well.” Nevertheless, if the woman had misplaced her faith and believed that drinking water from Jerusalem’s gutters would have healed her, she would have been disappointed and probably sicker. Faith is dependent on the power that is trusted.

IV.      Touch with faith to access the love and power of the heart of God. To touch each other is to touch the heart of God, for we are all embraced in the heart of God.

A.           We will ordain Elders today by the laying on of hands. Both from the witness of the New Testament and by personal experience, I know that the Holy Spirit uses that touch to call and gift Elders for this ministry.

B.            When Candy and I first arrived in Duncanville, several of you made a point of telling us that this congregation has plenty of huggers. We hug for joy! We hug for comfort! When we hug we release love from the heart of God.

C.            Next week D and S and C will be with you. I know you and they will all be at your best. I suggest that far more important is expecting to touch the heart of God together and release God’s love and power for each other.
Ann Weems has written a poem about the power of touching in church. (Reaching for Rainbows, 1980, Westminster Press)

What is all this touching in church?
It used to be a person could come to church and sit in the pew
and not be bothered by all this friendliness
and certainly not by touching.
I used to come to church and leave untouched.
Now I have to be nervous about what's expected of me.
I have to worry about responding to the person sitting next to me.
Oh, I wish it could be the way it used to be;
I could just ask the person next to me: How are you?
And the person could answer: Oh, just fine,
And we'd both go home . . . strangers who have known each other
for twenty years.
But now the minister asks us to look at each other.
I'm worried about that hurt look I saw in that woman's eyes.
Now I'm concerned,
because when the minister asks us to pass the peace,
The man next to me held my hand so tightly
I wondered if he had been touched in years.
Now I'm upset because the lady next to me cried and then apologized
And said it was because I was so kind
and that she needed
A friend right now.
Now I have to get involved.
Now I have to suffer when this community suffers.
Now I have to be more than a person coming to observe a service.
That man last week told me I'd never know how much I'd touched his life.
All I did was smile and tell him I understood what it was to be lonely.
Lord, I'm not big enough to touch and be touched!
The stretching scares me.
What if I disappoint somebody?
What if I'm too pushy?
What if I cling too much?
What if somebody ignores me?
"Pass the peace."
"The peace of God be with you." "And with you."
And mean it.
Lord, I can't resist meaning it!

I'm touched by it, I'm enveloped by it!
I find I do care about that person next to me!
I find I am involved!
And I'm scared.
O Lord, be here beside me.
You touch me, Lord, so that I can touch and be touched!
So that I can care and be cared for!
So that I can share my life with all those others that belong to you!
All this touching in church -- Lord, it's changing me

Friday, June 22, 2012

Too Big for You? Not for God!

1 Samuel 17:32-49; Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2012
© 2012

I.                I am ambivalent about public expressions of Christian faith by sports figures and other celebrities. “To Tebow” has become a verb and for some a joke. Josh Hamilton has had to explain his faith in humiliation. When Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open golf tournament last week he said, “I’d be stupid not to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, because it was tough out there, and I was nervous, and I felt his presence all day.” On the one hand, these folk have opportunities to let their light shine before others, as Jesus said in Matthew 5:16. Sometimes they seem to draw attention to themselves or make faith in Christ seem silly. Letting our light shine has to balance with what Jesus said later in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

       Early in the 1994 college football season the Colorado Buffaloes played at powerhouse Michigan. Colorado’s coach Bill McCartney has been very public with his Christian witness. With six seconds left and down 26-21, Colorado regained possession on their own 34 yard line. A Michigan fan seated on the 50 yard line yelled to McCartney, “Hey, Coach, where’s your God now?” McCartney said that was when he knew Colorado would win. On the last play of the game a 74 yard pass into the end zone was tipped into the air and grabbed by a Colorado player who fell over the goal line for the winning touchdown. On TV we often see fans for both teams apparently praying during tense game moments. I honestly don’t think God cares which team wins, but Coach McCartney felt the Michigan fan’s taunt put God’s reputation on the line and somehow ensured that the tipped pass fell to Colorado.

A.           The driving force behind David’s confrontation with Goliath was his concern that God’s reputation was on the line. When David heard Goliath’s taunts, he took them as defiance of the God of Israel, not just of Saul’s army. David could not understand how Saul, his brothers or any of Israel’s soldiers could let this go unchallenged, so he volunteered. When Goliath saw David coming with shepherd’s staff in hand, he was insulted and cursed him in the name of his gods. David returned the curse not claiming superior weapons but a superior God. By the defeat of Goliath and the Philistines all the earth would know there was a God in Israel.

B.            David shouted, “You come with sword and spear and javelin, but I come in the name of the Lord of hosts.” And confidently said, “The battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.” Goliath’s challenge was to hand-to-hand combat. David’s shepherd’s staff was clearly no match for Goliath’s sword. Nothing in the text suggests God miraculously guided the stone from David’s sling to Goliath’s forehead. We do need to realize that David was not using a small rock that would go in a slingshot. Slingstones were about fist size, round and weighing 2-3 pounds. Modern major league pitchers can hurl a baseball between 90 and 100 MPH. With the added leverage of the sling, a skilled hurler could accurately propel a slingstone at 125 MPH at close range. Undoubtedly Goliath’s skull shattered and his brain hemorrhaged. But David would be the first to tell us that it was not about physics and anatomy. Goliath fell to God’s reputation. Notice, also, that David’s language shifted from “me” to “us.” He did not defeat Goliath for himself but for all Israel. I wonder if David was remembering his day with Goliath when he wrote in Psalm 20:7-8, “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.”

C.            A little later today you will be voting on the budget for 1st Christian Church, Duncanville for 2012-13. I know that the stewardship and budget team and the Board have put a lot of careful and prayerful thought into this. As I observed this process, I was impressed that the budget is organized around the mission of the church, not around administrative categories. Slipping into a “how do we pay the bills?” mentality is all too easy. We start to think of money as the means and limit of how we get things done as a church. David’s story suggests that our dollars are something like his slingstones. Yes, the number is limited, and they must be used skillfully, but the work of the church is not done by dollars. It is done by people with the same confidence in God that David had. As we think about stewardship today, put God’s reputation on the line as you deploy your money and other resources for ministry.

II.            David perceived that Goliath’s taunts put God’s reputation on the line. We need to ask, “Where is God’s reputation on the line today?”

A.           If you listen to the rhetoric, you might conclude that God’s reputation is on the line in every theological, social, political, economic and ethical debate that clambers for attention and adherents. However, these issues are about our reputations, not God’s – even if we try to drag God into them.

1.              They may be more important than who will win this year’s World Series, but God’s reputation is not at stake in this fall’s election, in the survival of the Euro, in the stock market, in the schools.

2.              As much as people try to blame God for natural disasters and human cruelty, from crime to war, God’s reputation is not on the line where we are called to justice and compassion.

3.              God’s reputation is not at stake in our attempts at rational proofs for God’s existence or the accuracy of the Bible, as though somehow God is at odds with science, history and philosophy.

4.              God’s reputation is not at stake in the defeat of those we consider to be our enemies. Martin Niemoeller was a pastor in Nazi Germany and was imprisoned for 8 years for protesting Hitler’s policies to him in person. He said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”

B.            God’s reputation is on the line where unbelievers should be able to look and see God.

1.              Wherever people see injustice and human suffering, unbelievers should be able to see that God is confronting it. That may come through compassion, through self-sacrifice or through exposing truth. We’d like that to come through people who act in the name of Jesus, but God can work through outsiders.

2.              In John 13:35 and 17:22-24 at the Last Supper, Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another and that the world would know he had been sent from God when we are as united with each other as Jesus is with his Father.

C.            If we approach our personal stewardship as deciding on an appropriate amount or percentage to give to the church, our reputation is on the line, not God’s. If the church’s budget is planned for institutional maintenance and survival, our reputation is on the line, not God’s. But we can put God’s reputation on the line as we deploy our money and other resources for ministry. That happens when we recognize that what we have does not belong to us but to God. We do not just give some of it to God and do what we want with the rest. No! Everything is God’s, some of it we use individually and some of it we use together as a church. God’s reputation is on the line when a church says, “Serving people in the name of Jesus is more important that being comfortable or surviving.”

III.       To help you get the power of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4:35-41, you need to know a couple of things. In that time, storms on water were thought of as the work of chaos and even demons opposed to God’s creation and redemption. Also, when Jesus rebukes the wind and speaks to the sea, he uses the same words as when he cast demons out of people. This story is about more than Jesus’ power over nature. Jesus is not just protecting the safety and comfort of this disciples; he is confronting the chaos that is opposed to God. He had been teaching from a boat all day.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A.           Jesus seemed disappointed in the disciples. What did he expect of them? Faith and not fear. When we are afraid, we can be sure our reputation is what’s on the line. Faith is what put’s God’s reputation on the line. Faith does not always mean that every storm will be calmed and we arrive safely at a happy ending. When they got to the other side, Jesus healed the Gadarene Demoniac and went right back where they started. God’s reputation is on the line when faith puts us where God is redeeming people.

B.            After Jesus challenged their fear and faith, perhaps the disciples asked the wrong question. Instead of, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” maybe they should have asked, “Who is this that even raging, life-threatening circumstances do not disturb his sleep?” The question for us may be, “If God’s reputation is on the line and not ours, why do we lose sleep over what the future holds? Why do we lose sleep when the Dow is down? Why do we lose sleep when we face puzzling decisions? Why do we lose sleep over what others do?”

C.            If God’s reputation is on the line, stewardship is a question of faith not fear. I’m not suggesting reckless personal or church spending. If anything, I’m suggesting holding a steady course focused on serving people in the name of Jesus even when daily storms threaten to blow us off course.

IV.      The question comes down to where will you put God’s reputation on the line as you deploy your money and other resources for ministry?

A.           Perhaps you’ve heard this question. If someone looked at your checkbook, what would they conclude is important to you? Whose reputation does your checkbook put on the line? I’m not suggesting an austere, no-frills life. Rather, I’m asking what does what you spend on entertainment say about what brings you joy? What does your personal budget say about what you find satisfying? What does your charitable giving say about your commitment to justice and compassion as well as to your church?

B.            I already mentioned how powerful organizing this church’s budget around mission rather than administration is. In addition, I learned at the last Board meeting your policy of giving 10% of everything that comes in to mission in the world, beyond your walls. A congregation that tithes together like this can say to its members, we encourage you to tithe individually as well. This puts God’s reputation out front. As your mission here prospers, Christ’s mission around the world will prosper too.

C.             As you put God’s reputation on the line to deploy your money and other resources for ministry, you can be as confident as David and Jesus were. Is a Goliath taunting Christ within your earshot? Don’t resort to a slingshot pebble, hurl a full sized slingstone. Is a storm of chaos threatening to swamp you? Do not be afraid. With faith in Jesus’ authority, sail on through to heal the hurting people on the other side.

Friday, June 15, 2012

You Can’t See What Really Counts

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Mark 4:26-32
June 17, 2012 – Fathers’ Day
© 2012

I.                In the story of Samuel anointing David to become King of Israel, David’s father, Jesse of Bethlehem, almost gets lost in the excitement. Maybe Fathers’ Day got me to notice him. The Lord tells Samuel he has provided a king for himself among Jesse’s sons. We should not assume that Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah and their four other brothers had some kind of character flaw because they were not chosen. Jesse had raised his sons to be king material. From what Samuel could tell, they qualified. One important point of this story is that God is intentionally choosing to work through the unexpected and insignificant. For that reason, we should acknowledge that Jesse raised sons from whom God could provide a king.

A.           The most often quoted line from this story is in verse 7. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” When I have a problem with something someone has said or done, I frequently say, “I don’t know what is in their heart, but …” and then follows my accusation. But I cannot read this story without asking, “What God does see in my heart?” and then I shudder.

1.              The anointing of David also reminds us that David is called a “man after God’s own heart.” I have heard that so often I was  surprised to find that it only occurs twice. In 1 Samuel 13:14 Samuel tells Saul that God has rejected him and “has sought out a man after his own heart.” As the story unfolds, we see that is David, but he is not named. Acts 13:22 reports that in his sermon in Antioch in Pisidia, Paul says that God “found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out my wishes.” We understandably question how David could be a man after God’s heart, knowing that he committed adultery and covered it up with murder, and he had serious problems with his children. One clue is that he readily repented and did not make excuses the way Saul did. Also, for all his weakness, from his heart he wanted to carry out God’s wishes.

2.              Saul was the king the people chose based on outward appearance. He had the physical stature and demeanor of a king. David was the king God chose based on the inclination of his heart to carry out God’s wishes. An overview of Bible history, especially the history of Israel, shows God consistently choosing to work through the unexpected and insignificant. God’s work with David was not just in ruling as King but by sending the Spirit mightily on him, God also gave us a major portion of the Psalms in Scripture.

B.            David was anointed in the presence of his brothers. As we will see next week when David meets Goliath, his brothers felt some measure of jealousy. They were much like Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 37. The ways of God are mysterious to us. God’s choices often seem the exact opposite of how we would choose. God’s power is clearly at work when it comes through the weak and unimportant.

C.            Look for what God sees hidden in the unexpected and insignificant.

II.            Jesus himself was God hidden in the unexpected and insignificant. He taught that over and over again, especially in his parables. Perhaps the best known is the parable of the sower and the soils that is reported in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8. It is one of the few in which his private interpretation to his disciples is also recorded. Another parable of a sower and seed starts almost the same way in Mark 4:26-29. It makes a totally different point. Instead of soils showing different responses to the Gospel, here Jesus shows the mystery of growth. This is the only place it is recorded.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

A.           The farmer sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows. The farmer goes about his daily business, which includes plowing, fertilizing, planting, weeding, cultivating, maybe even irrigating. For all of that, the farmer cannot make the seeds grow. They are alive and grow of themselves. The farmer can make the conditions right for growing but ultimately is dependent on God to make the seed sprout and grow.

B.            The seed would sprout and grow, and the farmer does not know how. Even with all we have learned about cell division and DNA since Jesus’ time, we can’t explain how and why a dried up seed grows. Life produces life.

C.            Jesus is teaching about the mysterious growth of the Kingdom of God, which is not unlike the growth of the Church and even a single congregation. Buildings, programs and even pastors may make conditions favorable for growth but they do not make churches grow. For people to invite their friends, neighbors and relatives to church is like the farmer sowing seed. That’s essential to growth, but God is the one who causes growth. Spiritual life produces spiritual life!

D.           Look for what God sees hidden in the unexpected and insignificant.     

III.       In Matthew 17 and Luke 17 Jesus said that faith as small as a mustard seed can accomplish big things. In Matthew 13 and Luke 13 Jesus explained that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed; it may seem small but produces something big. He gave it a particularly humorous twist in Mark 4:30-32. To get the joke we need to know that no one would purposely plant the seed of a mustard shrub. It was a weed that would take over a garden or a field.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

A.           The image of birds building nests in branches as a symbol of the Kingdom of God comes from Ezekiel 17:22-24. The image of Israel’s future is a majestic cedar tree to which all the people of the world come to meet God, not a mustard shrub weed!

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

B.            In our success driven society, congregations like 1st Christian Church of Duncanville might look at the mega churches in our community and wrongly conclude smaller congregations like this don’t count. God uses different congregations of different sizes and styles to introduce different people to Jesus. To the extent we’re all about the Gospel, we’re not in competition with each other; we’re Gospel partners. I know that this church is a loving community in which wounded people can find safe shelter. Never for a minute discount your value in the Kingdom of God!

C.            Look for what God sees hidden in the unexpected and insignificant.

IV.      What do you think you will find if you look for what God sees in the unexpected and insignificant? What will you find if you are looking for the unseen?

A.           In your own heart, let go of looking for your flaws and failures. Instead, look for the righteousness of Jesus. That’s what God is looking at when you’re trusting Jesus. Look for the gentle breezes and breaths of the Holy Spirit to keep nudging you toward God.

B.            In the hearts of other people, look for God’s love for them, whether they are celebrities or outcasts, whether they are moral models or broken derelicts, whether they are spiritual toddlers or giants of faith.

C.            In 1st Christian Church, Duncanville, look for a mustard shrub weed, growing relentlessly, putting out large branches of safe shelter for the people who cross your paths every day. Some may end up as part of this worshipping community, but many won’t. But if you have shaded them from the glaring heat of life in the name of Jesus, you have seen a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

D.           Every week we gather at the Lord’s Table. I suggest that you think of the bread and cup as a microscope and telescope by which you can see God’s unseen reality. With the microscope, look deep inside to see the grace of Jesus removing sin and replacing it with his righteousness. With the telescope, look way beyond daily cares to see the glory of the coming Kingdom of God!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Be Careful What You Ask For

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; Mark 3:20-30
June 11, 2012
© 2012

I.                As I was looking ahead at what the lectionary suggested for this summer, I was intrigued by taking a journey through the early years of Israel’s monarchy starting when the elders of the people asked Samuel for a king until Solomon dedicated the great Temple in Jerusalem. Though we won’t see him until next week, David is the focus. I hope you will listen with me for the voice of God to teach us about spiritual leadership in times of transition.

A.           Against this ancient history we will hold up some of the more puzzling things Mark tells us about Jesus. In that space between seemingly unrelated events, I believe we will hear from God for our own time. As I prepared for today, I felt God was telling me: prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what I want.

B.            If you thought I gave you too much drama last week, this week you might think it’s too much history. We need at least a little history to understand the ambivalence about a king in 1 Samuel 8. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness for 40 years. Joshua led them into the Promised Land. Then came the period of Judges for 250 – 400 years, depending on how the counting is done. The Judges were charismatic leaders whom God called to respond to specific local threats. They were not government officials, and they did not lead the whole nation. The elders of each tribe took care of whatever administration was necessary in their own tribal territory. They had no central government but recognized God as their King. Samuel was a giant character at the end of this time. He was prophet, priest and judge all rolled up into one and was the first truly national leader since the time of Joshua and Moses. When Samuel got old, his sons took over much of the work but were corrupt.

C.            At this time Israel was not a nation in the way we think of nations. It was an informal alliance of the Twelve Tribes working together when necessary. I’m going to teach you a new word today that is fun to say and will give you something new with which to impress your friends: amphictyonic league. The most famous and long-lasting one was the Delphic League in Greece from the 7th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Israelite Tribal League predated this by as much as five centuries. We can get a little better idea of how this worked from the period of the Articles of Confederation in United States history from 1777 to 1789. After the American Revolution until the Constitution was adopted, the 13 colonies agreed to cooperate with each other for defense and diplomacy without giving up their individual sovereignty. They had no national president, no courts and no taxes. The constitution was controversial when it was proposed. Patrick Henry, who we remember for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” objected to the strong central government of the new constitution as “only the lust of ambitious men for a splendid empire that, in the time honored way of empires, would oppress the people with taxes, conscription and military campaigns.” (Wikipedia) Sounds a lot like what Samuel warned Israel a king would bring. Sounds a lot like the political debates of 2012.

D.           By Samuel’s time, Israel’s security was not threatened by petty kings but the Philistines. They were sea faring people from the Aegean who had colonized what is now the Gaza Strip with ambitions to take over all of Israel. Samuel may have been prophet, priest and judge, but he was not a military general, and his corrupt sons were not to be trusted. Faced with great uncertainty, the elders of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king.

1.              In and of itself having a king was not wrong. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 describes the responsibilities of the king Israel was to have when they are settled in the Promised Land. I know scholars debate whether this was written after they already had kings, but I am quite confident that the source does go back to Moses’ final sermons before Joshua took them across the Jordan River. Psalm 72 is attributed to Solomon and echoes the central theme that the King of Israel was responsible for protecting justice for the weak, the poor, the foreigners and the outcasts.

2.              But that was not the kind of king the elders asked Samuel to appoint. They wanted a king like the other nations to go ahead of them and fight their battles. They were no longer willing to trust God to protect and lead them. They might have asked Samuel if this was the time for God’s king, but they didn’t.

3.              Samuel did pray. God acquiesced but told Samuel to warn them what a king of military rather than spiritual power would cost them. The strongest and brightest of their young people would be conscripted for military and government service. Their land would be confiscated for military and government installations. They would pay taxes to support the military and government operations. Sounds like Patrick Henry. Sounds like today’s debates on the size and scope of government.

4.              Underneath this lies a fundamental psychological and spiritual issue that we have with us today. We externalize our problems. I think most of you are old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson. His signature line, “the devil made me do it” is a sarcastic expression of the ultimate externalization of responsibility. It’s where we end up when we get what we ask for and it turns out to be a disaster. Israel said, “If we just change the way we set up our government, the way we organize our community, our problems will be solved.” But they did not look inside, in their hearts. They did not ask, “How do we need to change spiritually to be prepared for the trials we are facing?” They did not ask, “What does God want us to be and do in the face of new challenges?”

II.            Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.

A.           When people come to me with their problems, the first sentence almost always tells me how they’re going to do. If they say, “I’ve messed things up, and I need help to get back on the right track,” they almost always do. If they say, “Things aren’t working out and they’re messing me up,” they almost never solve their problems but just go from one problem to another.

B.            You all look pretty good this morning, but I know most if not all of us in this room have been through some pain this week and know that tough decisions face us next week. I’ve been with you long enough that a number of you have told me about those things. I also know that you pray for yourselves, your families and for each other. I suggest that instead of asking God for the solution you’ve chosen for your problems, you pray that you can know what God wants you to do with your problem.

C.            I know almost everyone is praying for the Search and Call Committee to find this church a good pastor. I know the search has been going on for 10 months. The committee and some of you are getting tired if not impatient. Have your prayers started to sound like this, “OK God, alright already, send us a pastor, would you – soon please.” Calling a pastor is not like hiring a CEO, school superintendent or police chief. It’s not even like electing a governor or president. Have you thought about asking God to make you the kind of Christian, to make this the kind of congregation that can follow a new pastor where God wants you to go together?

III.       If you have read all of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, you know that the Christ-figure, Aslan the lion is not tame. He’s wild, dangerous and good. If you have any degree of reality in your relationship with Jesus, you know that he is not a tame savior either. He’s wild, dangerous and good. Jesus regularly leads us way out of our comfort zones. In Mark 3:20-30, Jesus’ family and the religious leaders from Jerusalem tried unsuccessfully to domesticate him. Jesus had been preaching to such a large crowd by the Sea of Galilee that he had to get in a boat so they wouldn’t crush him. He left the crowd to go up a mountain to appoint the 12 Apostles. “Then he went home; and …

the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

A.           For Jesus to teach as an itinerant rabbi was one thing, but his family could not get a handle on the crowds, the draining demands on his energy. They came to rescue him when people said he had gone out of his mind. What can you do if you can’t cope with the demands of Jesus? Write him off as crazy!

B.            For Jesus to teach as an itinerant rabbi was one thing, but the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem could not cope with healings and exorcisms. Spiritually powerless themselves, they dismissed his power as coming from Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.

1.              In English we miss the play on words here. Beelzebul means “lord of the house,” suggesting that the ruler of the demons has taken over the house and life of the one possessed. “House” is echoed when Jesus said that “a house divided against itself will not be able to stand” and again when Jesus spoke of his power over Satan as plundering the strong man’s house.

2.              Because it has troubled so many people over the centuries, I want to assure you that the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some trivial sin we inadvertently slip into. Rather, it is refusing to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and purposely calling it the work of Satan. If you’re worried about having committed it, rest assured, you haven’t. If you had you wouldn’t care.

C.            If we don’t write Jesus off as crazy or dismiss him as demon possessed, the only alternative is to accept that he was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That takes us here in Mark to the same place we were in 1 Samuel. Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.

1.              By the Holy Spirit we have the knowledge to do what God wants.

2.              By the Holy Spirit we have the power to do what God wants.

IV.      Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.

A.           Listen to these two stories. In 1 Samuel Israel wants a king over God’s objections. In Mark people want to write Jesus off as crazy or demon possessed rather than following Jesus out of our comfort zones.

B.            What is God saying to you? How will your prayers change to ask what God wants instead of asking for what you want? Will you give God permission to let the power of the Holy Spirit loose in you?