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.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Shape Is Your Net?

1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 4:12-23
January 26, 2014
© 2014

Just one more football game left this season – the Super Bowl. As always, a lot of attention is focused on quarterbacks and receivers. Whom can a quarterback trust for a clutch third and long in the fourth quarter? What kind of relationship does the quarterback have with the different receivers? Once the game starts, whether the quarterback would share family dinner with the receivers and their families doesn't matter. Whatever personal issues they may have are set aside for the single goal of winning the Super Bowl.
As we read in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, the Apostle Paul is disturbed about the divisions and quarrels in their church. Some were Paul’s fans; others preferred Apollos or Cephas. I’m sure the dissension went beyond personalities to disputes about how the church should be run.
Paul wrote that instead of dividing their loyalties between favorite leaders, they should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Just as a football team needs to unite around the goal of winning, a church needs to unite around the purpose of its mission, not around the preferences of personalities or individual taste.
In verse 17 Paul makes the uniting purpose crystal clear: proclaiming the Gospel. Energy and enthusiasm flourish; distractions and division fade, the sharper our focus on fishing for people with Jesus.
Jesus spoke of fishing for people in Matthew 4:12-23.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 
21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
As we saw last week in John 1, Andrew and Peter, John and James had already been introduced to Jesus by John the Baptist. They had spent time with Jesus, but he did not give them an entrance exam or ask them to sign a doctrinal statement or become members of his organization. He did say, “Follow me.” And he told them he’d make them fish for people.
I remember singing the children’s song “I Will Make You Fishers of Men” with the motions of casting with a fishing pole. As much fun we had with this as kids, for Jesus fishing for people had a very different image. Matthew knew about fishing with a hook and line, which he mentioned in 17:27. But Jesus saw Peter and Andrew casting a net into the sea. This word for fishing net is only used here and in Mark’s account of this story (1:16). It refers specifically to a small, round net. It was used near shore by wading in to the water, casting it in deeper water. When it is drawn in, it closes like a bag with fish inside. The more common word for fish net was for the large trawl nets dragged behind two boats in deep water. Unlike hook and line fishing, fishing for people with Jesus does not involve using bait to attract people to something they don’t want. With the image of the small, round casting net, fishing for people with Jesus implies getting into the water where the fish live and getting close enough to them to spread the net over them. An Alban Institute study concluded that many churches assume that if churches serve their own people well, outsiders will see this and want to become insiders, but they miss any desire to find out about the spiritual needs of outsiders.[1]
How does the image of the small, round casting net inform the way you think of our mission of fishing for people with Jesus? Energy and enthusiasm flourish; distractions and division fade, the sharper our focus on fishing for people with Jesus.
Jesus built his life centered around his mission of fishing for people. If we are to follow him, we must also build our lives and our church around Jesus’ mission of fishing for people.
As we saw in John last week, Jesus began his ministry alongside John the Baptist in Judea. When Herod Antipas arrested John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, not to escape Herod’s threats but to put himself at the hub of Herod’s domain. Herod had to be thinking to himself, “I got rid of that pest John the Baptist, and now I have to contend with this Jesus. Why can’t these preachers leave me alone?” Jesus left Nazareth where he had been raised and made his home base in Capernaum, which was the largest city on the Sea of Galilee and the crossroads of commerce and communication for Galilee and Judea. Matthew wrote that this fulfilled Isaiah 9:1, that light would shine in darkness in Galilee of the Gentiles. Though historically part of Israel, for centuries Galilee had a large Gentile population, and the Romans concentrated on Capernaum because of its commercial importance, especially for tax collecting. So Jesus went fishing for people where people were coming and going.
Everyone knew that John the Baptist had introduced Jesus. And they recognized that Jesus picked up where John the Baptist left off, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Where John the Baptist preached by the Jordan River in the Judean wilderness waiting for word of mouth to bring people to him, Jesus strategically went to where the people were. He taught in the synagogues He brought a healing ministry to the sick. Like fishing with a casting net, wading into the water with the fish, Jesus’ mission took him to be with people so he could fish for people.
So when Jesus called Andrew and Peter, John and James as his first disciples, he was calling them to join him in the mission of fishing for people. No elaborate, confusing instructions, just one simple focus: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Energy and enthusiasm flourish; distractions and division fade, the sharper our focus on fishing for people with Jesus.
For 1st Christian Church of Odessa, this transition time is not just waiting for a new pastor. You are standing on the threshold of a whole new era of mission. You are poised to reinvent yourselves for unprecedented ministry in the 21st century. You will be facing unanticipated changes and challenging decisions. You will have to sort through a myriad of controversial opinions. Unity will not come by navigating through competing philosophies, personalities and preferences. Unity will only come by sharpening your focus on your purpose, your mission of proclaiming the Gospel to people beyond the church, of fishing for people with Jesus.
Evangelism is not about programs and techniques, but love for God, church and people. Evangelism is about inviting people to church and introducing Jesus to them. People seldom come to church because of advertising or activities. People come to church because someone they know invited them. The invitation may be to an activity, group or worship, but the personal invitation is the essential ingredient! And people stay with a church if they form relationships there. Studies show they need to make five friends within a month or a little more to stay.
People who are hungry for an encounter with God in an authentic community want to know that God is really among you, as I have reminded you that Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:25. In his commentary on this passage, Douglas Hare wrote, “Our task is to share a faith that is exciting enough to be contagious.” (p. 31) We talked about this kind of excitement at Leadership Conversation on January 15 when discussing Paul Nixon’s assertion that churches must chose fun over drudgery.[2] Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians that disunity was killing their fun. The solution is to take the focus off of competing personalities and unite for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel.
Paul wrote that he did not come with eloquent wisdom but with the power of the cross of Christ. (v. 17) Evangelism depends on the power of Jesus’ word, “Follow me!” Not worship styles, theological schools, social or political agendas. Not how well we argue for God. The Holy Spirit is quite capable of convincing people through Scripture to follow Jesus. Our part is to invite people to join us in following Jesus. Energy and enthusiasm flourish; distractions and division fade, the sharper our focus on fishing for people with Jesus.

[1] Why Some Churches Don’t Grow, Alban Institute quoted by Brian Stoffregen in Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks
[2] Paul Nixon, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 2006, pp. 55fff

Thursday, January 16, 2014

And Herrrrre’s … Jesus!

1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
January 19, 2014
© 2014

Isenheim Altarpiece
John the Baptist and the Lamb of God Who Takes Away the Sin of the World

Matthias Grünewald 1512–1516

In her book Unbinding the Gospel Martha Grace Reese tells about a woman who had been looking for a church during a tough transition time in her life. She talked with several friends about what she was going through. One Sunday she visited a church near her home. She was shocked to find five of her friends and coworkers with whom she had shared her struggle belonged to that church and were in worship that day. Not one of them had suggested their church might be able to help. Not one even indicated they were part of a church. None of them had shown any sign of Christian faith. (Chalice Press, 2006, p. 77)
I have had opportunity to know Martha Grace Reese who is part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and led a four year evangelism research project in mainline churches funded by the Lilly Endowment. She concluded that “the heart of evangelism is love – of God, of church, of others.” (p. 5) Evangelism is not about programs and techniques but about these three relationships.
This reality confronts us with sobering questions. Do we have enough love for God to tell what God has done for us through Jesus? Do we have enough love for our church to invite other people to check us out? Do we have enough love for the people in our lives who do not know Jesus to introduce him to them?
If these questions don’t make you squirm enough, they point us to an even more unsettling question. Do we know Jesus well enough to introduce him to people who don’t know him or are confused about him?
In John 1:29-42, John the Baptist, Andrew and Jesus himself all give us practical, simple, accessible clues about how we can introduce Jesus to the people God sends across our paths.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 
32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.”
They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
John had started a popular spiritual revival. Huge crowds were flocking to the Judean wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized in the Jordan River. Along came Jesus, and John did not engage in jealous competition. He not only pointed people to Jesus, but explained that the whole point of his life was to reveal Jesus. John the Baptist accomplished his purpose when his two disciples followed Jesus. The point of evangelism is not to build our own religious movements or congregations but to introduce people to Jesus.
The first thing Andrew did after spending an afternoon and evening with Jesus was to find his brother Simon Peter and tell him, “We have found the Messiah!” No dissertation of proof-texts or arguments. Andrew simply reported his conclusion with enthusiasm.
When Andrew and John the Baptist’s other disciple, perhaps the Apostle John, asked Jesus where was staying, he simply invited them to “come and see.” He didn’t explain “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” or give them a systematic theology. He simply invited them to be with him.
Back in July I told about a man who wanted to go on a youth mission trip. “I have skills and tools that can help. I don’t believe, but I won’t upset the kids’ faith. I’ll go in another room when you have Bible study and worship.” He did that for three or four years in a row. When he was baptized and joined the church, he said that what brought him to faith in Jesus was listening to youth from the other room. “Jesus was so real and so important to them, I just had to follow him too.” They knew Jesus well enough to introduce him to this man without even realizing he was listening in. What can we learn about Jesus from John the Baptist and Andrew?
John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have two images of lambs. One is the sacrificial lamb that takes the punishment for sin with its life. The other is the triumphant horned sheep who banishes defeated sin to exile. The word John used for “lamb” is only used two other times (Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:18-19), perhaps intending enough ambiguity for both images. We rather easily say that Jesus died and rose again so our sins are forgiven. But to know Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is to experience our own liberation from sin, guilt and shame. To introduce Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is to confidently offer that same liberation to someone who is burdened by regret.
John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the one on whom the Holy Spirit remains and who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Certain excesses in some Pentecostal circles are only one reason that many Christians leery of too much emphasis on the Holy Spirit. We like to keep our lives safely under control, and we’re afraid the Holy Spirit might lead us out of our comfort zones. Yet, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit is central to Jesus and introducing him to people. As we read in 1 Corinthians 1:7, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are what inform and empower all of our ministries, especially evangelism. The Holy Spirit directs people who are spiritually hungry across our paths and prods us to speak to them about Jesus. To know Jesus well enough to introduce him to others is to tune into the nudges, energy and personal presence of the Holy Spirit.
John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the Son of God. Andrew told Peter Jesus was the Messiah. So his Gentile readers could understand, John translated “Messiah” as “Anointed.” Similarly, “Son of God” and “Messiah” are foreign concepts to our secular friend and neighbors.  We have to translate for them. Orthodox theology of Christ is not going to do the job. We need to communicate that by our own intimacy with Jesus, we have a relationship with God and a vision for our own lives.
During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, Francis of Assisi was appalled at the violence inflicted in the name of Christ and went to see Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt with the intent of converting him to Christ or becoming a martyr in the process. Rather than arguing about Islam and Christianity, Francis told the sultan why he followed Jesus and invited him to join him on that journey. Though some legends say the sultan was baptized on his deathbed, he did not convert to Christianity, but is reported to have said that if all Christians were like Francis he would consider becoming one. In the eight centuries since Francis of Assisi, a vital relationship with Jesus is still the essential prerequisite for effective evangelism.
John the Baptist testified that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and remain on Jesus. On the basis of what he saw, John the Baptist testified that Jesus is the Son of God. Have you seen anything that you know is from God that is worth testifying to? Does your relationship with Jesus make any difference to you beyond showing up in church on Sunday mornings?
Allan Eubank is a retired Disciples of Christ missionary who still lives in Thailand. In his book God! If You Really Are God he tells the stories of people who came to faith in Jesus by being invited to ask for some response from God in their lives. Allan makes the point that evangelism is not about convincing people with arguments but inviting them to come and see Jesus. You do not need theological training to invite people to come to church and see if Jesus meets them here. Or to invite them to read a Gospel with you and see if Jesus meets them there.

Inviting people to church is not about recruiting members for an organization. Evangelism is not about the survival of this or any one other congregation. The future of this congregation does not depend on maintenance but on mission. We come back to love at the heart of evangelism. Do you love Jesus and people enough to risk the future of the congregation so more people can get to know Jesus? We invite people to church so they can be exposed to Scripture and have friendships with people who know Jesus. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:25, when an outsider comes into any church gathering they “will bow down before God and worship, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’”

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Long Walk Just to See a Baby

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
January 5, 2014
© 2014

2014 is not just a new calendar year, but opens a new era of mission for 1st Christian Church with a new pastor. That evangelism is top priority has been evident in the Board, among the Elders, for the Search and Call Committee and in Leadership Conversations. I tell you with absolute confidence the one thing that makes for effective evangelism that is at least tenfold more significant that any and everything about the new pastor. That the people of the church are excited enough about their church to invite their friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers to come to church with them.
Brian Stoffregen, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Yuma, AZ frames it with these questions. “Where are the unchurched at today? What signs will speak to them? Are our members willing and encouraged to invite [them] to this church? If not, why not?” (Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks.com)
When we do invite people to church or introduce them to Jesus, we will get a variety of reactions. Today, on the Sunday before Epiphany, the story of the Magi gives some insight into these varied reactions to Jesus.
Epiphany means revealing, uncovering or shining light. It is all about evangelism. The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus celebrates revealing the light of Christ to the Gentile world.
This fulfills what God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 to bless all the families of the world through him.
As we will see the next couple of Sundays, Jesus baptism by John reveals Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The story of the Magi poses a host of fascinating puzzles for which there are no definitive answers, which we will not let distract us today. What was the star? How did it’s rising represent the King of the Jews? Matthew doesn’t say it guided the Magi across the desert, so how did it point out where Jesus was? Who were the Magi and where did they come from? Isaiah 60 mentions kings and camels, but Matthew does not. When did they come and how old was Jesus?
Matthew 2:1-12 shows how the reactions of Herod, the Chief Priests and Scribes, and the Magi to the revealing of the child Jesus prepare us for the responses we can expect when we introduce people to Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God.
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.
Matthew does not say that the Magi went to Herod. I suspect they were something of a spectacle in Jerusalem. Herod would have heard they were asking about a child king. He figured out this could be the promised Messiah, and he believed the Hebrew Prophets could tell him where the Messiah would be born. Instead of seeing the Messiah as hope for his troubles, he saw him as a threat and thought he could get the best of God and kill him.
The Chief Priests and the Scribes were theological combatants. The Priests generally thought the Messiah was a symbol of hope but did not expect one to be born. The Scribes believed a real Messiah would come someday but not any time soon. They must have heard the same Magi buzz as Herod and made the Messiah connection when Herod asked about Messiah’s birthplace. Having taught the Prophets all of their lives, they gave Herod the correct academic answer, but the showed no interest at all in checking out whether the Messiah had actually come.
The Magi were practitioners of astrology, which was roundly condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures. They may have come from Arabia or more likely Persia, traditional enemies of Israel. They were apparently ignorant of the Hebrew Scripture, which ultimately pointed them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They had the spiritual perception to recognize the humble child Jesus as the King of the Jews they had been seeking. They were also able to perceive that the dream warning them not to return to Herod was legitimately from God. The language of the last sentence suggests that the Magi did not just take a different road but another way of life to their country.
My prediction for 2014 is that it will be an Epiphany year for 1st Christian Church. The process of seeking and welcoming a new pastor will reveal many new ways God sheds the light of Christ on people who do not yet know and trust Jesus.
In these coming Sundays after Epiphany, until we get to Lent, my preaching will focus on getting to know Jesus well enough that we can all become Epiphanies, revealing Jesus to the people God sends across our paths each day.
When we shine the light of Christ on people, we can expect the same kinds of reactions the child Jesus evoked when the Magi came to visit.
There will be the Herods who react with hostility. They will not be convinced by persuasive arguments. They focus on personal presuppositions and power.
There will be the indifferent Chief Priests and Scribes. They may be the most informed and religious, maybe even claiming to be spiritual. Their goal is to keep God at a safe arm’s length.
But there will be spiritually hungry and open Magi. They may be ignorant of the Bible, inexperienced in church, confused about theology. But they will recognize the light of Christ and pursue him.
Brian Stoffregen’s questions point us to the Magi God is sending us – the spiritually hungry people beyond the walls of the church. “Where are the unchurched at today? What signs will speak to them? Are our members willing and encouraged to invite [them] to this church? If not, why not?”
For 2014 to become an Epiphany year of evangelism with a new pastor for 1st Christian Church, we need to be dramatically shifting focus. Not what kind of pastor would I be comfortable with, but what kind of pastor can help us shed the light of Christ on outside folk? Not what kind of church am I comfortable with, but what kind of church can we become that will draw in people who don’t know Jesus? Not how can we recreate the good years of the past but how can we become the kind of church our grandchildren would want to participate in with enthusiasm?
In order to reach people who live beyond the church, connecting with their world is absolutely essential. Try making a list of the people you know who do not go to church. Where do your lives overlap? You might need your children or grandchildren to help you connect with people a generation younger than you are who do not do church. This doesn’t need to be a big group, just a few with whom you can have enough of a relationship to see through their eyes.
As people who have no (or limited or negative) experience with church make their first forays into what will be foreign territory to them, they will have no idea what to expect or what is expected of them. Their dress, their language, their manners, their opinions, their entertainment and more are all likely to be distinctly unchurchy. Trying to “correct” any of this to be church-appropriate is the fastest way to get them to leave. Evangelism requires cultivating patience and tolerance for misunderstanding.
Finally, and most important, keep the focus on Jesus! Don’t argue about the Bible, politics, denominations, religion. Instead talk about Jesus. Read a Gospel together. Any of the four will do, but I like to start with Mark because it is simplest. Luke may be the most accessible to contemporary secular people. A lot of people like John because it talks so much about belief, but it is the most intricate and inscrutable of the Gospels. Matthew depends on understanding some of the Old Testament. Listen to what people say and ask about Jesus. Talk about your relationship with Jesus. That will do more to stretch your own spiritual growth than any academic Bible study.