Proper 9 (A)
Sunday July 4, 1999
A Sorrowful Rebuke
Today’s Scripture contains both a warning and a promise. We also see the sorrow of Jesus. John’s disciples had come to Jesus to ask if He was truly the Messiah or if they should expect another. Jesus answered their question and, then, as they were leaving, He continued to speak about John to the crowds. Jesus gave high praise to John, speaking of him as one “more than a prophet” (v.9) and saying of him: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (v.11).
As Jesus continued to speak, a far away look entered His eyes and a note of sorrow sounded in His voice. Luke’s version of the story gives the reason for Jesus’ sadness and His subsequent warning (7:29-30). Luke tells us that the ordinary Jews, the common people, acknowledged the truth of Jesus’ words; that is, as evidenced by their baptism by John, the common folk acknowledged that before God they were guilty and worthy of condemnation. They affirmed that God was fully justified in demanding from them confession of sins and true repentance, not in words only, but visibly and publicly by undergoing the baptism of John.
Luke also tells us that the Pharisees and experts in the Law, that is, the Jewish religious leaders, had rejected “God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30) by refusing to be baptized. Jesus’ sorrow and frustration at the sheer perversity of human nature is palpable as He says in effect: “What are you looking for? What is it that will bring you to repentance? John came, living the austere life of a hermit, fasting and despising food, isolated from human society, and you said of him: ‘He is mad — an eccentric — a demon has taken his wits away’ Then I came, mixing with all kinds of people, sharing in their sorrows and their joys, entering into all their activities and you called me a drunkard — a glutton — a partygoer. Will nothing please you? Will nothing bring you to repentance?”
Jesus’ warning is clear. The religious leaders had so closed themselves off from the voice of God that there was no longer anything God could do to break through the walls they had built around their hearts. There are those who sit in church pews every Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year, who hear appeal after appeal to come to Jesus, yet who refuse to respond. Each refusal is like a brick in a wall surrounding their hearts, and each successive brick muffles, a little bit more, the voice of God until they have shut His voice out completely. Jesus’ warning is that the human heart can be lost in a perversity in which any appeal that God may make will be met with a wilful and wayward rebellion. What excuse will such a person have on the Day of Judgment?
But this passage also contains a promise. Note Jesus’ final words: “But wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matt. 11:19). Luke has, “But wisdom is proved right by all her children” (7:35). Both phrases mean the same thing. The ultimate verdict lies not with those who have hardened their hearts but with the final outcome for those who respond. The religious leaders might criticize John for his asceticism, but his words had moved people’s hearts to God as they had not been moved for centuries. The religious leaders might criticize Jesus for mixing too much in ordinary life and with ordinary people, but those who responded to His message found a new life, and a new goodness, and a new power to live as they were called to live.
The question I leave with you is this: Where is your heart this morning? Have you so misused your freewill as to frustrate God’s purposes? In your perversity, have you blinded and deafened yourself to God’s appeals? Or will you, this morning, right now, prove God’s wisdom right by becoming one of her children? (Richard Jackson)
Proper 10 (A)
Sunday, July 11, 1999
The Faithful Sower
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Today’s Scripture tells of a farmer who went out sowing seed. Some of the seed he scattered fell along the path, some fell on rocky places, some fell among thorns, and still other seed fell on good soil where it produced a bountiful crop. We don’t need to guess at the story’s meaning for Jesus provides the interpretation Himself in verses 18-23. The seed represents the Gospel, and the various types of soil where it was scattered represent how people respond to the Gospel. Some don’t understand the Good News. Others accept the Gospel but fall away in times of trouble or persecution. Still others allow the concerns of this life to snuff out the light of the Gospel within them. Yet a few hear the Word and allow the Gospel to take root in them until their lives blossom forth with all the fruit of the Spirit.
In this sense, this parable is aimed at the hearers of the Word — those who have never responded to the Gospel. But this parable has another audience in mind as well — those who share the Word — faithful witnesses to the Gospel. It was spoken not only to the listening crowds; it was also meant to say something to the inner circle of disciples who had committed their lives to sharing their faith. It is not difficult to imagine that in the hearts of the disciples there must sometimes have been a certain discouragement. Jesus was everything to the disciples — Master, teacher, Lord, faithful friend. But, humanly speaking, He met with very little success. The doors of the synagogue were shutting against Him. His life was in constant danger; by this time, there was little doubt that the Jewish religious leaders were out to destroy Him. It is true that the crowds still flocked to Him, but so many came only for what they could get from Him; as soon as they received their healing, they went away and forgot Him. To the disciples, it must have seemed that Jesus roused nothing but bitter hostility in the leaders of the synagogue and, at best, a very transitory enthusiasm in the crowd. In such a climate, who can doubt that the disciples had periods of deep discouragement?
So, what was the message this story contained for the discouraged disciples? What is the comfort that those of you who are faithfully scattering seed, but with few results, can take away? Its lessons are clear. First, we must not look for quick results. We live in an age of instant gratification and quick results. Computers now measure rime in nano-seconds – billionths of a second. But farmers know that impatience accomplishes nothing. It takes a long time for a seed to blossom forth into a rich harvest, and it may take a very long time before the seed of God’s Word germinates in a person’s heart. We must sow in patience and in faith, leaving the harvest to God and His timetable.
The second lesson this parable teaches is that the harvest is sure. It will always be true that much of the seed we scatter will be wasted. Some will fall by the wayside and be snatched away by birds; some will fall on shallow ground and never come to maturity; and some will fall among thorns and be choked to death. But, in spite of all this, the harvest will come. No farmer expects every single seed he sows to germinate and bear fruit; nor does he grow discouraged and sell his farm when some of the seed dies. He is sustained by the firm confidence that the harvest will come and so he continues faithfully to scatter seed. Recently, I was speaking to the pastor of a church with several thousand members, who, himself, faithfully and consistently scatters seed. By any standard, he is a powerful witness and an effective evangelist. I was surprised, therefore, to learn that, by his own estimates, no more than two percent of the people he witnesses to ever come to a faith in Jesus Christ. He commented that if he allowed himself to grow discouraged after the first ninety-eight rejections, he would be considered a dismal failure. He says that, for him, the key is his unwavering belief in the coming harvest.
So, then, this is a parable of encouragement for those who sow the seed of the Word. The harvest will come but it will come according to God’s timetable, not ours. We are called to be faithful in scattering the seed and to leave the harvest to God. (Richard Jackson)
Proper 11 (A)
Sunday, July 18, 1999
In God We Trust
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” “I have to do this.” “I have to do that.” How many times have we echoed similar sentiments? Our lives are plagued with busyness. This fast paced rat race that we run is giving us spiritual heart failure. Our hearts have become divided. One day we wake up and realize that something is missing. We are like hollow logs, empty vessels, spinning wheels. We know that we are to love the Lord God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, yet for all practical purposes, we do not. Why? Our hearts are divided.
I. In False Gods We Trust
Too often, we have let other gods gain the affections of our heart. You may be wondering, “Other gods? How can that be?” Let me explain by describing some false gods. Busyness — are you too busy to pray? Friendships — do you listen to the advice of friends rather than the still small voice of God? Leisure — do you long for a day in the park or an afternoon of fishing rather than time with the Lord? Work — are you worshiping your work? Children — do they consume every minute of your time? What about pride, self-interest, success, achievements, anger, worry, fear, hurt, grudges, goals, dreams, hobbies, sports, television, music, sleep, food, etc. The list is never ending. Anything in our life can become a god.
Ask yourself some questions. What do I think about most of the day? What is the most important person or thing in my life? What has become the center of my life? The answer to these questions will define the gods in your life.
II. In False Gods We Fail
Wake up! The false gods do not satisfy. They rob us of our peace and joy. They leave us empty inside, let us down, remove our hope, and plague us with insecurity and fear. They write checks that cannot be cashed, make promises that cannot be fulfilled. It doesn’t take long to realize that false gods are just that — false.
Have you ever noticed how some people live their lives? They wake up, go to work, return home, eat supper, watch television, go to bed, wake up, and repeat the dull, monotonous cycle day in and day out. What a sad and empty existence. False gods rob us of the joy, zest, and meaning in life.
Not only does experience teach us that false gods are worthless, but the Scriptures resound the message, especially the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The prophets repeatedly make scathing remarks against the futility of trusting in false gods (see Jer. 7:9, 18; 10; 44; Isa. 41:21-29; 44:9-20; 46; Hos. 3:1).
III. In God We Trust
If you find yourself in this predicament, what are you to do? Who can deliver you from this valley of dry bones, this desert of darkness, this cultural chaos that surrounds you with false gods? As Isaiah reminds ancient Israel to put away her gods, we are challenged to do the same. We are to deny their existence and realize that they are false.
How can this be done? By centering our attention, thoughts, and lives around the One true God. He is the first and the last. There is none besides Him. He alone is our rock. He alone is Lord. Let these words of Isaiah speak healing to your divided heart. Meditate on them, fix your heart upon their truth, reorder your thoughts and your lives around them. Let God be the Lord and rock of your life. When you do, the false gods — one by one — will fall away and you will find that you are loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Paula Fontana Qualls)
Proper 12 (A)
Sunday, July 25, 1999
Humility For Sale
I Kings 3:5-12
I. The Sales Pitch
Would you like to have peace of mind? Would you like to be successful in all that you do? Would you like to have healthy relationships with your family and friends? If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, then I have some news to share with you. “What is the catch?” you wonder. It seems too good to be true. Yet, when we look closer at this story of Solomon, we find some very practical truths for our lives today.
II. The Product
When Solomon’s ministry began, he had his priorities in order. His father taught him the value of truth, righteousness, and uprightness of heart. He had a humble heart before God. His confession, “I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in,” speaks volumes. He understood what it meant to submit himself to God. In God’s presence, he saw himself for who he really was — a little child.
Solomon also understood the immensity of the task before him. God’s people were many — too many to be numbered. This was a job that he could not accomplish on his own. The task would require spiritual insight. Solomon needed God’s help, so he asked for an understanding heart. The Hebrew, lev shomea’ literally means, “a heart that hears.” Solomon asked for a heart that would hear God and rightly discern between good and evil.
God granted his request and gave him a hearing heart which brought him much wisdom and discernment. Wisdom became Solomon’s legacy. Stories of his wisdom are familiar to us all. He understood the secret to success. You can too.
What is the secret? It is found in Solomon’s confession, “I am a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” What would happen if you began every day with this prayer? How would your job performance be affected if you approached the workplace with this attitude in your heart? To what depths could your relationships grow if you made this confession to God daily; if you put God’s wisdom into practice with your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, and others? Your lives would be totally transformed.
III. Warning Label
Unfortunately, Solomon’s story is not all peaches and cream. As his wealth increased, his fame grew, and his kingship thrived, his heart turned away from God (I Kings 11:1-4). He became secure in his success, power, and prosperity. He no longer saw himself as a child. Instead, he was a self-made man who would make his own decisions. In abandoning his child-like humility, Solomon ushered in the downfall of his kingdom which resulted in the irreversible division of the Israelite Monarchy. The kingdom was divided because of Solomon’s careless rebellion.
Solomon’s pride is a warning to us all. If our lives are to be God centered, we must maintain our childlike humility before God. The Scriptures are full of stories that support this. When we are humble before God and He is first, our lives have balance and perspective. Even in the midst of chaos, confusion, and uncertainty, we have peace.
IV. Guaranteed Lifetime Warranty
Solomon’s secret to success can become the focus of all that we do and the sum total of who we are. This attitude of humility is a guarantee of God’s guidance and peace. Let us learn from Solomon’s successes and failures. May we live each day with our hearts centered in the prayer, “Lord, I am only a child, I do not know how to go out or come in.” (Paula Fontana Qualls)
Proper 13 (A)
Sunday, August 1, 1999
Giving Our Loaves And Fish
This morning’s gospel lesson is a favorite. It appears in all four gospels.
“And the Disciples said to Jesus, ‘These people are hungry. Send them away into the villages to buy something to eat.’ And Jesus said: ‘You feed them.’ But the Disciples answered: ‘Where would we get so much food?’ Jesus answered: ‘What do you have?’ And they brought their food to Jesus.” … “And they brought their food to Jesus.” Matthew (plus Mark and Luke) give the disciples credit for the act of generosity beside the lake. Of course, the disciples were responsible for this story being passed along in the early Church. “We didn’t have much food but were willing to give what little we had to feed those folks!”
Only John remembered that the disciples weren’t quite that altruistic or generous. He says it was child who stepped forward … a child who had said: “Mama fixed this lunch bag for me, but if you need it, Jesus, to feed these folks, whatever I have is yours!”
We have no idea how many people were actually gathered to hear Jesus. The Bible says “There were 5000 men plus women and children.” That, of course, is a topic for another sermon — that women and children didn’t even count in that day and age … and we wonder if there are still places where they or other people don’t count. But for our purposes, let it be noted that there were far more than five thousand people who were hungry out by the Sea of Tiberias. Counting women and kids, there may have been 10,000 or 15,000, or even more.
Darkness was falling. The markets were closed. The people were hungry. So the disciples told Jesus: “Send them away to purchase food.” But Jesus answered: “No. We will not ask others to care for the poor who are at our door step.” “You give them something to eat.” And either the disciples — or a little boy — brought five loaves and two fish, and then the miracle occurred.
What sort of miracle was it? I’m not sure. It may have been supernatural. But, as William Barclay suggested, it may have been even more miraculous than that. Jesus may have taken that handful of elements and supernaturally multiplied them “until everyone ate and was satisfied, and there were twelve baskets of food left over.”
Or, it may have been that the crowd, aware of an act of selfless generosity, became generous themselves … sometimes a greater miracle. Seeing disciples or a little boy step forward to say to Jesus: “Here. If You need it, You can have what’s in my lunch bag” may have caused first one person and then the next to follow suit: “Okay. I had brought something for dinner, but if they can be generous so can I.”
During our six years in Asheville, I was privileged to know a number of women who had emptied their lunch bags to help feed a hungry world. They had willingly given their all for others. They lived at a place called Brooks-Howell Home, a retirement home for retired deaconesses from The United Methodist Church. I preached there, taught there, visited people there and did funerals there. But most of all I enjoyed just going and sitting in the Archives Room, asking questions and listening. Brooks-Howell is a retirement home for retired deaconesses from The Methodist Church. In the Archives are artifacts from India, the African continent, Asia, Alaska and Europe. And each artifact is a story waiting to be told.
There were women there who had given half a century as community nurses in small African villages, teaching school and holding worship services … who had taught elementary school in fishing villages in the north of Alaska … one who was for years a surgeon in Korea, working from dawn till dusk — performing intricate surgeries — and teaching others how to do so, as well … and some who preached and cared for orphaned or abused children.
Those women often worked for hardly any money at all … occasionally in pauper’s lodgings … sometimes deprived of what we call necessities … and sometimes abused. They were by and large well educated … women who could have had remarkable careers … or happy family lives … had they remained at home. But instead they heard a sacred Call, and they answered: “Here am I, Lord, send me,” and went off sacrificing their own needs to meet the needs of others.
I love the poem:
Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop
Within a yard of hell!
Those women at I knew would say a loud “Amen!” to that. In their daily lives across the years, they emptied their lunch bags that the world’s hungry might be fed.
Frederick Beuchner writes: “In the Christian sense, love is not only an emotion but is also an act of the will.” It is an emptying of our lunch bags. It is saying to Jesus: “I may not have much, but what I have … and what I am … are yours. Use me to heal the hurting and help the helpless. Here are my bread and fish. I sacrifice them to feed a hungry world.” (Michael Brown)
Proper 14 (A)
Sunday, August 8, 1999
Elijah Running Scared
I Kings 19: 9-18
In our morning lesson, Elijah has come straight from a powerful victory over the priests of Baal at the Brook Kidron. Four hundred of them; one of him. And at the closing bell, only Elijah remained standing.
His celebration was short-lived. Queen Jezebel was a member of the court of Baal, and Elijah’s victory embarrassed her. She was not a woman who took embarrassment lightly. So she promised: “By this time tomorrow, I will do to you what you did to my prophets.” Elijah had not been frightened of four hundred opponents in priests’ robes. He was not frightened of King Ahaz whom he considered to be pretty much a wimp. But Jezebel scared him to death. When she made a threat, he knew she meant business. So Elijah fled through the desert for “forty days and nights” (biblically that simply means “a long period of time”). And he wound up at Mount Horeb where he whined in prayer: “Oh God, I, only I, am left, and now they seek to kill me!”
Two things of note: One, Elijah, the man who had won a great victory at the Brook Kidron through prayer, apparently forgot to pray when he learned of Jezebel’s threat. As a matter of fact, this is the first indication we have of any prayer on his part for the whole forty day and night journey. And this is not a prayer of great faith. It is self-indulgent and cowardly. But at least it is a prayer. And when we pray — however inadequately — miracles happen.
Will Willimon spotted a young coed at Duke walking through the beautiful Duke Gardens with a handsome young man. He knew her from class and considered her a bright and personable student. So, when he saw her next he asked: “Are you in love?” “Why do you ask that?,” she question. He explained: “Well, I saw you in the gardens arm-in-arm with a young man. It’s such a romantic place. I just wondered. Are you in love?” She answered: “No, I was not there because I am in love. I was there because I want to be in love.” In other words, she was putting herself in a place where love could happen.
Prayer is putting ourselves into a place where God can happen … where God can get hold of us. I often tell people to talk as much as they wish when they pray — but also to set aside ten minutes a day when they pray with no words at all. Just be silent and still. Just wait and listen. At Mount Horeb the story says there was “earthquake, wind and fire,” but it also says that “God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire but in the sound of a still small voice.” Only when Elijah retreated from the eruptive cacophony of his busy world was he able truly to pray. And the prayer became power-packed and productive only when he was silent and still and listened.
That says to me that (a) When we pray, God listens, and (b) When we pray really well, we listen.
The second important point of this lesson is that things are rarely as bad as they seem. When Elijah complained that he was the only faithful person left in all Israel, and now wicked Jezebel sought to kill him, God reminded him that Jehu, Hazael, Elisha and 7000 others were there with him … for him … and like him. He was surrounded by a community of faith that was willing to be his strength. If he would only open his eyes, he would see that blessings abound even in the arid spots of our lives, and silver lining is found on every dark cloud.
A dear friend told me of the end of her marriage. She fell into a deep depression that lasted for almost three years. But at last she began to discover friends who loved her, others who had shared similar experiences and at last an inner strength to do and accomplish on her own. Today she is a highly successful teacher and author who has even written a popular book about the emergence of a woman’s spirit when forced to rely on her own resources. She said to me: “I felt alone and hopeless. But out of that very experience, I found others whom I love, and I found my best self.” There are always blessings to be found, even at Mount Horeb, if, to quote Jesus, we have “eyes to see.” (Michael Brown)
Proper 15 (B)
Sunday, August 15, 1999
A Healing Faith
Is Jesus a racist? Does it really matter to Jesus what color a person’s skin is? Does He make any distinctions based on a person’s ethnic background, religious upbringing, or socio-economic class? We’ve been taught since we were little to sing the song,
Jesus Loves the Little Children,
All the Children of the world
Red, brown, yellow, black and white
All are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world
The person who sings that song and then reads this text will find it difficult to reconcile the truth of the song with these words of Jesus.
Jesus, at first, comes across as very uncharacteristic of all that we have been led to believe about him. He is going to the border of regions which have historically been very hostile to the Jewish people. Tyre and Sidon incurred the wrath of the ancient prophets. He was in a time of retreat, having just had his first significant confrontation with the Pharisees, as recorded by Matthew. These confrontations always seem to have to do with what is an authentic and what is an unauthentic expression of “religion.” We will now see a contrast between the pious religiosity of the Pharisees and the true faith of a Gentile woman.
It’s significant that Matthew would refer to her as a Canaanite woman. It reflects an archaic term which was representative of Israel’s enemies. Yet this woman recognized Jesus for who He was. She probably didn’t have full theological understanding of all of the names she attributed to Jesus, yet there was insight that here was a man who could help her. The only problem was that she was not of the right ethnic group for Jesus to help her.
We’ve seen Jesus heal before. We’ve seen Him heal the ruler’s daughter and the woman with the issue of blood. When some blind men cried out to Him for healing, Jesus said, “According to your faith, will it be done to you.” The problem is well within Jesus’ power to do something about it. So why would Jesus balk at healing the woman’s daughter because she was not of the right ethnicity?
Worse than refusing her, at first He ignored her. He heard her cries and would have just kept on going if the disciples hadn’t said, “Send her away.”
Jesus asserted that He was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” The woman was persistent, though. She was not to be denied.
Jesus referred to her as a dog and said, in effect, “I can’t take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Dogs were not held in as high esteem in the ancient world as they are today. The sting is taken out of Jesus’ saying a little because He does use the diminutive form of the word. Still, Jesus shows no inclination to help her.
Some speculate that Jesus himself may have been confused on who could and could not be the recipients of His mercy. That’s not likely. Jesus may have wanted to delay any ministry to Gentiles because they didn’t have all of the preparatory work of the Old Covenant behind them. They weren’t ready to understand the Messiah and His mission. It’s more likely that Jesus wanted to see if this woman really had genuine faith.
When she said, “All I want are the crumbs that fall under the table,” Jesus was moved by her faith and couldn’t say no. He taught the lesson that our ethnicity is not what matters ultimately to God
What a contrast we see. The Pharisees thought they were so righteous but Jesus wasn’t at all impressed by their religious contortions. Yet a Canaanite woman had enough faith to admit that she had a need and to believe that Jesus could meet that need and would not take no for an answer from Jesus. In this case, her faith helped to bring about her daughter’s healing. (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 16 (A)
Sunday, August 22, 1999
Time for Delivery
Is there anyone any more miserable than a 9 1/2 month pregnant woman? The novelty of being pregnant and the joy of the baby showers have given way to desire for a physical ordeal to be over. Morning sickness has passed, but now a 25 to 30 pound “bundle of joy” growing in the tummy squishes the organs and makes movement of any kind uncomfortable. As one very pregnant mother commented recently, “This isn’t fun anymore!” All thoughts have now turned to the delivery of the baby.
At least a 9 1/2 month pregnant woman knows that the time of her delivery is at hand. Any misery she feels is fleeting. Soon it will dissipate into the intense love and joy at bringing a new child into the world. A 9 1/2 month pregnant woman has hope.
I. Words of Hope
Isaiah attempted to speak words of hope to people who viewed their situation as hopeless. They knew they were being chastened for their disobedience to God, yet there was a remnant who had tried to remain faithful. By definition, a remnant is a small group — the leftovers. A group not big enough to do anything meaningful. God has never been deterred by smallness, though. Time and again, we see in the Old Testament there are a few who are still interested in doing right.
To this discouraged remnant who was trying to do the right thing, the prophet says, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” It’s good in times of turmoil to be able to “remember where you came from.” They came from 2 old helpless people, some may say, who had nothing to live off of but their faith in God. There were never 2 more unlikely people to become the parents of a nation than Abraham and Sarah. Yet, God chose to work His purpose through them.
Judah thought her situation was desperate — some would say even more desperate than Abraham and Sarah. God says, “Remember the miracle I worked through Abraham and Sarah. They were two old people who had long since given up hope of having children when I brought an entire nation into being through them. I specialize in bringing hope out of hopeless situations.”
The world in which Isaiah lived was a turbulent place. One superpower vied for supremacy over another, oftentimes leaving Palestine in its wake. Isaiah’s people seemed at the all-too-rare mercy of whichever army had the upper hand at the moment. In verses 1-3, the Israelites were told to listen to Yahweh and to look to their forebears to give them hope. Now they’re told to listen and to look to the Heavens to know that the word of God is more permanent than the stars and the earth. That word says that in a world of injustice, oppression and instability, God is moving to make His justice be a light to the nations. We hear here the echoes of Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”
There is ultimately nothing certain in life except the Word of God. Scientists base their theorems and postulates on probability and observation. A scientist will say something like, “Because the sun has risen in the east every morning since the dawn of time, we have every reason to believe that it will continue to rise in the east.” What if God decided it was time for the sun to start rising in the west? Things that we place such certainty in in this life will one day cease to exist.
The One Whose word stands forever says, “My salvation, my justice, and my righteousness will stand forever.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 17 (A)
Sunday, August 29, 1999
Power to Persevere
Anyone who has ever struggled through a difficult pastorate can resonate with Jeremiah. As “the weeping prophet,” he knew what it was to face disappointment in his ministry. He is not one who would have been invited to lead a seminar on “How My Sunday School Grew from 50 to 5000.” He poured out his life for his people with little or no recognition, appreciation or acceptance. According to his personal theology, it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. He thought, like many an idealistic young preacher, that commitment to God and dedication to His service would guarantee him a life of ease and popularity.
As Jeremiah came to the painful realization that his preconceptions were going to be shattered, he pours out a prayer to God that is brutally honest. Jeremiah thought, perhaps like an idealistic young preacher going into a troubled church, “If I preach the word to these people, they’ll repent.” Yet Jeremiah was coming to the painful realization that in spite of his tears and his pleading, the people of Israel weren’t going to change.
God’s judgement for His people was sure. He told His weeping prophet, “Even if Moses or Samuel were pleading for these people, I wouldn’t have compassion on them.” Later he says, “I will lay my hands on you and destroy you; I can no longer show compassion.”
Jeremiah may have asked, “Why wasn’t I born at a more prosperous and fruitful time in Judah’s history?”
In the face of the Lord’s sure and impending judgment, Jeremiah prays for the Lord’s vindication of him and his ministry. Like Elijah, it may have been tempting for Jeremiah to think that he was the only one left who was serving God. If the people were going to suffer because of the judgement of God, Jeremiah felt that he had already suffered enough because of his devotion to God.
The people of Israel may have rejected God’s Words but Jeremiah devoured God’s Words and took great delight in them. The people of Israel may have engaged in all kind of revelry but Jeremiah kept himself pure. Yet he experienced pain and endless heartache. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, or so Jeremiah thought.
When he comes to his breaking point, he asks God, “Are you going to be like a deceptive brook or a failing spring?” A wadi which would offer an abundance of fresh, reviving water in the rainy season, would be only a dry dusty stream bed. Jeremiah had such high hopes for what life would be like if he served God yet those dreams were shattered. In brutal honesty, he came very close to calling God a liar.
God can handle our honesty. The throne of God was not threatened one iota by the honest, pained, pleading of His disillusioned prophet. Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a man in grief over the pain of losing his daughter driving the Los Angeles freeways and screaming things to God, through the tears that he wouldn’t say anywhere else. When he got through, thoroughly exhausted, he went home. Later, the man related, “I’m glad God won’t tell anyone else what I said to Him.”
God can indeed handle our honesty, but that doesn’t change the fact that God is God and we are His creatures. As Jeremiah professed his own righteousness, God said, “You need to repent.” It’s as if God said to him, “I understand you’re upset, Jeremiah but let’s keep straight who’s who in this relationship. I’m God and you’re not.”
Jeremiah is bristling under the weight of the unpleasant task God had given him to do and God says, “If you repent, I’ll still use you.” No matter how much Jeremiah may have wanted to get out of the unpleasantness of some of his tasks, to abandon serving God altogether was not an option either.
God doesn’t promise to ease Jeremiah’s burden, He promises instead to give Jeremiah a strength that no one will be able to overcome. He encouraged Jeremiah to allow the people to turn to him rather than him turning to them. God promised to be with Jeremiah and protect any harm from coming to him.
This passage doesn’t just apply to preachers. Into what difficult situation have you been called to witness for Jesus Christ? God wants to use you and has promised to be with you to strengthen you. (Mark A. Johnson)
Sermon Briefs in this issue are provided by: Richard Jackson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Malvern, PA, Paula Fontana Qualls, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies, Campbellsville University, Campbellsville, KY; Michael Brown, Pastor Centenary United Methodist Church, Winston-Salem, NC, Mark A. Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching
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Proper 9 (A)