17th Sunday After Pentecost
October 4, 1992
Tour of Duty
I don’t know if I should mention a nasty little four letter word in the pulpit. If I do, I know it will seem strange. If I do, I know I probably shouldn’t ever do it again. If I do, I know many of you will be shocked. If I do, I hope you will forgive me. I’m going to do it. The nasty little four letter word is …. duty.
How do I know it is an offensive word today? Because you hardly ever hear it used in polite conversation or read it in print, and if it is used, it is used in a negative manner. An article in the paper told of Dr. Diane Komp’s experience with dying children and the wonderful lessons they have taught her. As a matter of fact, her experience with dying children has given her back her faith. The article said, “She has seen so many of her young patients die in peace after having had visions, that she no longer is the skeptic whose religious convictions were derailed in medical school.”
What I thought was most interesting is that she started staying with the dying children out of a morbid sense of duty. “Certainly,” she said, “not from any sense of anticipated joy.” Duty made her do it. Duty drove her to be with the dying children. Duty, dirty duty, made her undergo what she thought would be an unpleasant experience. She was “duty driven.” When you hear a person talk about his or her “oughts,” you are listening to someone who is “duty driven.”
What if I put on the pulpit a bumper sticker that said, “I’d rather be skiing.” Every Sunday you would see me preaching above a sticker that told you I’d rather be somewhere else. What if I explained to you that the only reason I am not in Vail or Steamboat Springs is because it is my duty to be here? I love to ski, but I preach only out of duty. How would that sticker make you feel? Not too good, I would guess, and it would say a lot of negative things about me and my ministry.
What if a mother or father simply took care of their children out of duty to them and to society? What if a husband or wife kissed each other and gave each other a little squeeze because it was their duty? Wouldn’t that be a strange relationship?
What if Jesus were to say, “Look, the only reason I died on the cross was out of a sense of duty. I hated to do it. I could think of a thousand better ways of spending my time. It was actually a lousy idea, but once I realized that I was God’s Son, I was duty bound to do it. So I gritted my teeth and did it, but I hated doing it, and now I hope you are satisfied.”
“Duty driven” people seem to be people who are acting out a role, going through the motions, doing as little as possible in order to survive. Certainly they are not behaving out of any sense of “anticipated joy.” I don’t think we appreciate people who are simply performing in the line of duty. They are like actors on a stage. They may have the words, but they lack the music.
Our New Testament Scripture lesson is surprising, for in a short parable it tells about a hard working servant who was out in the field all day plowing and keeping an eye on the sheep. At the end of a hard day, along toward sundown, he arrived at the house, and the master does not say, “Welcome home from a hard day of work. Well done, good and faithful servant. Here, let me feed you and you sit here and rest.” No, the master sits down at the table and looks at the servant and says, “Well, what’s for dinner? Get going. I’m hungry, you know. What took you so long?”
The parable says that the master doesn’t have to thank the servant for what he was commanded to do. He was, after all, only doing what servants by definition do: they serve. That’s quite a story, but Jesus makes it even more remarkable, for then He says to His disciples (and to us), “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded of you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’.”
The rhetorical question implicit in the parable is whether the servant should receive the gratitude of his master for performing his duty. The answer is no. Should a fish be congratulated because it can swim? Should a bird be thanked for flying? Should we be grateful to the grass, the trees and the bushes for growing? They are simply doing what is expected of them.
Are we surprised when the teacher teaches, or the physician heals, or the dentist drills, or the husband and wife show affection to each other? Certainly not. It is expected of them. So it is expected of servants to serve. They, by definition, are people who meet others’ needs. They are people who, by definition, tend to the necessities of others. It is not strange when they do it. It is strange when they don’t do it, for when they don’t do it they are no longer servants.
Jesus Christ calls us to follow Him and be servants. Jesus in one modern translation said, “If you merely obey me, you should not consider yourselves worthy of praise. For you have simply done your duty!” No big deal! Servants serve.
The point of this little parable is an important one. When we have done our best, when we are through doing good works, we do not have a claim on God. He does not owe us anything. We have no right to say to God, “I’ve always been a good person. Why did this tragic event happen to me,” for that assumes that doing good somehow puts God in our debt. That implies that God is locked into watching over us and smoothing the way for us. That implies God loves some of His people more than others, and this parable says otherwise.
Life itself is a “tour of duty.” Servanthood is a way of life. We, like the servant in the parable, are never done with being servants. We are always servants, wherever we are, no matter what we are doing. We are here on earth to serve God and the needs of His people, which includes the whole world.
But the real servant, the most effective servant, does it out of love for the Master. Servanthood is best when love replaces duty. When the preacher loves to preach, the physician loves to heal, the teacher loves to teach, and a married couple love each other, you have the ideal biblical models of Christian servanthood.
Do you remember Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? It is a story of London and Paris at the time of the French Revolution, and the secret of its drama is the way Dickens so weaves the plot of righteous murder and the vicarious sacrifice of Sidney Carton, who is given a chance to make good by taking the place of his friend at the guillotine. Carton does this, not out of any sense of duty or external “oughtness,” but simply from a compulsion of love. His explanation, as he took his place in the group of those about to be executed, was “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before.” He went beyond external duty, for his motivation was that of love. His servanthood became a lifestyle.
When we complete our “tour of duty” here on earth, if we too have surrendered ourselves totally to a greater love and finally realize that our life belongs to God alone, our tour will end with an “honorable discharge.” (CTH)
18th Sunday After Pentecost
October 11, 1992
Three themes emerge from our text. The first is that faith in our God, who has come to us in the risen Lord, can make a difference in our lives. The Samaritan leper was healed; Jesus attributed it to the man’s faith. In faith we can be transformed. The diseased can encounter healing; the broken can be mended; the disturbed can discover peace; the outcast can embrace acceptance.
The second theme is that offering praise and thanksgiving to God makes a difference. Jesus heard the Samaritan’s praise of God and received the man’s thanks, but Jesus wondered what happened to the others. Weren’t all their lives transformed? Certainly, we are led to believe that all the lepers were healed. Yet, it may be that the most powerful re-ordering and redirection of our lives comes only when we acknowledge the ultimate source of all transformation and change, that is, the one almighty God, Lord of us all.
Undoubtedly, the physical healing changed all the lepers. But the Samaritan’s dramatic realization that this was the result of God’s generous compassion altered him at the very depths of his being. When our hearts are filled with gratitude and our voices with praise and thanksgiving, we are different people.
A third theme is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gift to all people. This is one of Luke’s recurring points. Who is the good character in this story? It’s a Samaritan. To the Hebrew faithful, Samaritans were despicable, unredeemable folks. Nevertheless, it is clear in this story, that this one judged so harshly by the people was indeed the most faithful.
What if we go a little deeper into the story? What if we empathize with the nine ungrateful lepers? What is going on with them? What is happening in their lives? What is their response to all this?
Contemporary people fear change. And why not? There has been no time in history when things changed as rapidly as they are now. I was visiting with a production engineer from a local electronics manufacturing plant, a man who is instrumental in product development. He was telling me about their long-range planning. He said: “Ten years ago, we worked on five to ten year plans. Now we work on five to ten week plans. No one can predict the future.”
Some 90% of all scientists, researchers, theorists, educators and inventors who have ever lived are alive today. When it comes to change we haven’t seen anything yet.
For many people it is hard to know what they can count on, rely on or trust anymore. People are worried about their jobs, their ability to care for their families, their ability to live independently.
Change is scary for many people. And in the face of rapid change — much of which seems uncontrollable — we tend to cling to what we have. We try to amass as much security and stability as we can. We hope that we can be spared.
Those nine lepers were healed, but now what? For years they had lived as outcasts in a separate, impoverished society. It was rotten, but at least they knew where they stood. Now that they were healed, would they be accepted? Would they fit in? Would they be cared for?
Change can be frightening. We may not always embrace it with grateful hearts. Yet salvation does mean change. It is not a call to business as usual or to insulate ourselves from the world around us. It is a call to open ourselves to transformation and, in fact, welcome it. It’s the only way to have a life that matters. (PRB)
19th Sunday After Pentecost
October 18, 1992
Persisting in the Faith
Jesus wants His followers to persist in their faith, even when things do not seem to be going their way.
The widow desired justice, but she had a couple of things going against her. First, widows in the ancient near eastern world had very little standing in the community. Widows, orphans and strangers received little protection under the law, and had very little recourse in securing a fair hearing in regard to anything. (This is why the prophetic affirmation about faithful caring for the “widow, orphan and stranger” is so disturbing to those who stand in the cultural mainstream.) Second, the judge was morally and spiritually bankrupt. He didn’t care about God or people.
In the face of these overwhelming odds, the widow persists. Ultimately, she receives a hearing, not because it was the right thing to do but because the widow was getting on the judge’s nerves. He just wanted to get rid of her.
Jesus then uses some familiar reasoning. If this unjust judge can finally be moved by persistence, doesn’t it make sense that God (who is far greater than any judge) should also respond to those who continually and faithfully call upon Him? Jesus then answers that surely this is the case, but wonders if there’s much of the faith-that-never-gives-up around.
The direct route into this story is to explore the theme of remaining faithful in all the changing circumstances of life. God is there for us and cares for us no matter what. Whether we feel like God cares or not, whether we experience that care or not, even whether we believe it or not, we can count on it. Persistent faith in this reality will make a difference in our lives.
Yet if we switch the perspective of this lesson a little, today’s story may become our story in a more meaningful way. Although most of us like to see ourselves as the widow, many of us are like the judge.
Kelsey tried everything to get her parents to pay more attention to her, to spend time with her, to get involved with her life. She worked hard at school, raising her grades from B’s and C’s to mostly A’s.
“Good work,” her dad said once. “That’s what we expect out of you,” her mom said. That was it.
Kelsey joined the volleyball team and practiced hard, hoping her folks would come to a game. They came to one game, complained about the hard bleachers and teased Kelsey because her team lost.
So Kelsey started staying out late, lying about where she was, becoming irresponsible and unpredictable. Her mom yelled at her. Her dad kept yelling at her mother to straighten out the daughter. After a while, nobody said anything.
Kelsey desperately wanted her parents to get involved in her life, but she could not force it. Her parents were not mean, cruel or angry; they just didn’t pay attention to her. That old uncaring, distant, unfeeling relationship just stayed the same.
Kelsey tried everything to get her parents’ attention. She tried to please them. She tried to upset them. Getting yelled at was better than no attention at all. It sure beat being ignored.
Are there people out there who are seeking our attention? Are there folks out there who need us to get involved with their lives? Are we listening for their voices or are we tuning them out?
God hears our cries. But it might be hard to convince others that God hears if we are turning a deaf ear to the needs of persons and the world around us.
Engaging the troubles of our time and reaching out to people in need takes effort and energy. But turning a deaf ear and trying to pretend that difficulties do not exist can be exhausting in and of itself. The former is a matter of faith; the latter, a matter of fear. (PRB)
20th Sunday After Pentecost
October 25, 1992
Going for the Gold
(2 Timothy 5:6-8, 16-18)
The Olympic Games capture the attention of people all over the world. For several weeks every four years, thousands of world-class athletes compete for honors as the world’s “best.” Only a relative few, however, take home medals. The rest — the vast majority of competitors — return home with only the consolation that they gave the competition their best.
Paul uses the analogy of the ancient sports competitions to encourage Timothy in his ministry. It is clear Paul realizes his life is nearly over when he states “the time has come for my departure …” (i.e. death) in verse 6. His life had been so given in service to God that Paul feels “poured out like a drink offering,” a reference to the common Roman practice of ending every meal by taking a cup of wine and offering it to the gods. Paul has poured out his life for Christ and the Gospel.
Like Erasmus who said in old age “I am a veteran, and have earned my discharge, and must leave the fighting to younger men,” Paul gives some final words of advice to the younger Timothy.
I. Fight the Good Fight!
The Greek word for “fight” likely refers to competition in the arena, perhaps a wrestling match. Note that there is no indication whether the “fight” has been won or lost — only that Paul gave it the best he had. In our day when “winning is everything,” Paul’s message is a message all Christians need to hear.
Many times we will not see any real rewards for our efforts to be faithful. That is not the point of Christian living. Like Paul, we are called to be faithful, not to be successful. In the arena of life, the most important work begins by entering the arena.
II. Finish the Race!
Since the Christian life is not a competitive event, it does not matter who comes in first. Indeed, the truth of the matter is that Christian living is an endurance race. What really matters is that we run – and finish — the race faithfully. Paul challenges Timothy with the words “I have finished the race.”
The imagery here is of the marathon: the long-distance race named after the ancient Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. Against long odds, the Greeks won the battle.
A Greek soldier was sent to bring the victory news to Athens. Running non-stop day and night, he at last reached the city and to the magistrates gasped out the message “Rejoice, we have conquered.” After delivering the message and completing his mission, the soldier collapsed and died.
God needs women and men of faith with staying power, who will not give up in the face of adversity and difficulties as life grinds on. Christians serve their Lord best who do not yield to the inevitable despair and discouragement that will come when trying to live each day faithfully.
No Christian is called to do anything more in the cause of Christ than their best with whatever talents, abilities and opportunities God has given them. If Paul were writing today, he might use the slang phrase, “keep on keeping on!”
III. Keep the Faith!
George Washington nearly abandoned all hope in the winter of 1776 when he and his men suffered from the bitter cold and were confronted by the dreadful prospect of starvation at Valley Forge. He sent a letter to his brother in which he said, “I think the game is up! … I believe no man has ever had greater difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.”
Thankfully, history proved him wrong. He and his army did survive, and later they were victorious. Washington would have made a terrible mistake if he had yielded to despair in those dark moments. Instead, he managed to “keep the faith.”
One of the keys to successful Christian living, Paul suggests, is to always “keep the faith.” William Barclay writes that Paul refers here to the pledge an athlete takes before the competition. The ancient pledge was an affirmation that they had trained no less than ten months, and that they would not use any tricks to win (The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, revised, Westminster, 1975, p. 211). Likewise, Christians must hold to essential Christian belief and practice its truths.
When the Christian has done all of this — fought the good fight, kept the faith, and finished the race — a great reward awaits: the crown of righteousness. Unlike the green laurel wreaths given to victors of athletic competition which would shortly shrivel up, this crown never loses its luster. This crown is everlasting life in the Lord’s heavenly kingdom. (SRF)
All Saint’s Day
November 1, 1992
Praying for What Every Church Needs
Most people don’t know much about lichen, even though it is found almost everywhere on earth. This plant, which consists of both algae and fungi, is maintained by the effects that each has upon each other. One supplies carbohydrates; the other, salt and water. As the two interact, the lichen is able to live and prosper under the most extreme conditions. Scorched or drenched, it flourishes regardless of the climate or the time of year.
Likewise, the church, which is the living “body” of Christ, has similar characteristics. Just as continual interactions of the fungi and algae enable the lichen to grow in hostile environments, so believers praying for one another can strengthen and invigorate the body of Christ. It is this sense of supporting and strengthening each other in prayer that Paul emphasizes in one section of today’s Lectionary text for Trinity Sunday that involves the work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I. Pray Words of Thanksgiving and Remembrance
Paul begins by telling the Ephesians that he always gives thanks to God for them. Today, when people feel less and less appreciated and noticed, what a gift it would be for a congregation to be lifting up each other to God in prayers of thanksgiving and appreciation! Imagine the powerful results!
Roger Palms, writing in Decision magazine (“Gift,” December 1987), tells of the time “when I was a young pastor, in addition to my regular daily prayer time, my Christmas gift to the members of my congregation was to pray through the church roll during Christmas week.”
After several years, the list became too long. Now he suggests using a list of people who may not have a lot of others praying for them, or those who are especially in need of prayer at this time. It will be a special Christmas prayer list. Palms will give the time, God hearing the prayers will be the gift. Palms suggests that if all his readers were to pray for just ten people with special needs this Christmas, it would make a staggering impact on many lives, perhaps as many as fifty million!
II. Pray for the Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation
Another need of Christians everywhere is for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in order to know Christ better: “I keep asking that (God) … may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation,” writes Paul. Note the emphasis on the end result: to know Christ better by way of wisdom and revelation.
The Greek words used here are powerful: “wisdom” is the knowledge of “God’s will and worthy conduct”; and “revelation” is “the knowledge of the historical coming of God that is fulfilled in Jesus and consummated in the last day” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, one volume edition, by Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 1063, 411).
Too many Christians spend their time in vocational, educational, and recreational pursuits that have little or nothing to do with seeking the wisdom and revelation that leads to a deeper knowledge of and relationship with Christ.
III. Pray that Hope Abounds
We live in a “negative” time. Frustration, despair, anguish and pain are all around us. “Bad” news fills our newspapers, television programs, even our conversations. For most people, the cup of daily life is half-empty, not half-full.
If anyone had a right to be discouraged about his life, it was Paul. Care to count the number of personal trials and troubles he endured? Little went the way he planned.
Yet in the midst of such struggles, he can tell the Ephesians of his prayers that they may “know the hope to which he (Jesus) has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (verse 78). Paul knows the power of hope.
Research into why some churches grow while others do not has revealed many reasons. One reason is that growing churches seem to be infused with hope and optimism. They see opportunities where others see only obstacles. They are forward-thinking, not locked into their past. The future is bright because they know that in Christ they can have hope!
IV. Pray for New Experiences of the Power of God
Finally, Paul tells his friends at Ephesus that he is praying they may know “… his (Jesus’) incomparably great power for us who believe.” He is reminding the Ephesians that they do not face life alone. They have available to them the strength and power of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is a message often lost in a society which believes in rugged individualism and sings “I Did It My Way.”
It is clear from Paul’s words here that God’s power was most clearly shown in the Resurrection. Indeed, the balance of the text (verses 20-23) in one way or another refers to the reality of the Resurrected Christ Who reigns at the right hand of God.
The Resurrection is the ultimate triumphant sign of God’s power over all things, even sin and death. The Resurrection is a sign and symbol par excellence of the truly immense (Paul’s words “incomparably great,” verse 19) power of God.
Christians who understand that they have available to them and their churches this “incomparably great” power of God will be people and churches who can do great things for the Lord! A Church whose members pray as Paul suggests in the first chapter of Ephesians can be a church with unlimited potential! (SRF)
22nd Sunday After Pentecost
November 8, 1992
What Do We Do Now?
“Jesu walked barefoot up to Calvary, and ever since that day he washed my sins away in Jordon, I’ve gone unshod to honor him.”1 The words are Godric’s, via Frederick Buechner. It was Buechner who assumed Godric’s person, to write in the first singular of that twelfth-century monk and saint. It was Godric, a fierce sinner converted just as fiercely, who, soon after his conversion, prayed,
O thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and the foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen.2
A powerful prayer as I pray it. A prayer for all the pray-ers who are converting, whose way is about to change; for all for whom life and fortunes are in flux.
As Godric thus began his shoeless pilgrimage, he carried ill-gotten treasure to a church in Fame, like Zaccheus, there to lay it at Jesus’ bare feet. A crazy monk named Elric met him there, “a beard with legs and arms, a hoary pricklebush that ran.”3 It was by Elric that God answered Godric’s first prayer, teaching him to pray and, in the process, teaching him also to fast. Elric said,
For every mouthful I don’t eat or drink, Christ gets a mouthful more … I can give Jesus nothing that I have for I have nothing left to give, but every worldly good I’ve ever given up, they’re all my gift to him.4
Such is, it seems to me, the meaning of fasting — its theology and its joy. Fasting is, for God’s sake, giving up to God; taking away from one’s self as a way of giving to one’s Lord; “restricting” oneself in honor of God’s liberality as Sharezer and Regem-Melech and their men called the practice, when they tramped from Bethel to Jerusalem on December 7, 518 BC,5 to ask the priests and the prophets what they should do, how they should act now that the Temple was almost finished.
For seventy years the Temple had lain in ruins, ever since its sacking by Nebuchadnezzar. For seventy years the people had mourned and fasted, in reminiscence of the ruins.
In the fifth month of 586 BC, the Babylonian ruler had destroyed Jerusalem, its palace and its Holy Place, and in the process had very nearly destroyed the Jews’ self-understanding and theology. The people had been exiled to Babylon, you will recall, and there in that strange land found themselves unable to sing the Lord’s song. As a response to the trauma, an “official lament … (was) instituted” for annual observance in the fifth month of each year.6 By the time we join the priests and prophets and emissaries from Bethel in Zechariah 7, this month-long observance of official mourning and fasting had been a matter of course for seventy years.
But now, long after Nebuchadnezzar and into the fourth year of the more enlightened leadership of Darius, the exiles have come back to their own land, and the Temple itself is very nearly restored, only two years from rededication. And what are we to do, they ask in the fourth month before the fifth? Should we keep fasting?
Their concern is understandable for, as long as Zion lay in ruins, institutional fasting seemed appropriate. A formal, corporate remembering of the people’s shame and despair had been in order. But the reconstruction of the Temple had begun in 520, soon after Darius began the process of repatriation. And while during certain phases of rebuilding the people’s zeal had flagged, with the urging of Haggai and the preaching of Zechariah the Temple was close to being finished. And the people didn’t know what to do, how to act.
“Should (we) mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month as (we) have done for so many years?” Should we go on honoring our misery, in other words, or give up givine up, as it were, in anticipation of our joy? A simple question, with less than a simple answer. God’s reply indicates that “it all depends.”
If the fasting has been for God’s sake, the answer would seem to imply, then such fasting is always appropriate. Like crazy old Elric, doing without yourself so that God may do something with your self is a beautiful act of contrition and obedience.
If, however, the fast is for yourself alone — like doing alms to be seen by others, or praying to be observed, or disfiguring yourself for the sake of acclaim — then don’t bother. Bother instead with another kind of contrition: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor, and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
In other words, whether fasting or not, selflessness is the key. Sacrifice for God’s sake and His children’s.
Whenever the month, in whatever year, no matter the scene or circumstance — do what you do for other’s sake, and for God’s sake. Fast, or render truly. Restrict yourself, or show kindness to one another. Whatever you do, do it not for yourself, but for God and for God’s children.
Or, as another Prophet put it, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself.” (TRS)
1. Frederick Buechner, Godric, New York: Atheneum, 1980, p. 106.
2. Ibid., p. 105.
3. Ibid., p. 108.
4. Ibid., pp. 109-110.
5. This according to the Julian calendar. So Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers. Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, vol. 25B, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1987, p. 379.
6. Ibid., p. 386.
23rd Sunday After Pentecost
November 15, 1992
Faith Alone Shall Last
“Nothing is permanent except the lack of permanence.” It’s an aphorism of my dad’s, and the more I’m around the more I believe ol’ dad was right. No less a theologian than Langdon Gilkey agrees, arguing in his Reaping the Whirlwind that “change is basic in human experience and in the world that is experienced…. Time and change set the limiting frame for all of human reflection on the being which we experience and know…. This experience of change … (is) the source of our most fervent hopes and our deepest anxieties, and it sets for us our most important spiritual tests ….” (p. 3).
In a bit more pedestrian fashion, we might spin Gilkey’s last statement this wise: How we deal with change is a good indicator of our faith and spiritual maturity, if only because our struggle to maintain against change is sometimes an act of idolatry.
Change itself is more or less valueless. There are some, of course, who contend that all change is good, and that churches and their ministries ought to be aggressive “change agents.” Others try to avoid change at almost all costs (and not just in the church!), recalling the second law of thermodynamics as rationale — that order proceeds inexorably to disorder, a law which is usually demonstrated by the work area of my desk.
My own sense of the matter, however, is more ambivalent. Sometimes change brings good with it, sometimes it bring other than good; there is no magic formula, I fear, for wrestling with the universe’s one constant. Like Jacob at the Jabbok, we just have to hold on and keep on, trying to work the change for the good. We have to keep on wrestling until the change blesses us, and perhaps until we bless the change.
Still, given the uncertainties of our world — the inexorability of change and the pain it sometimes causes — you can understand, among other things, nostalgia. The longing after the past when, in retrospect, the times and all in them seemed clearer, settled. You can understand the wistfulness that attends to the old days, the old things, the old people sometimes, and the old places.
Will Willimon, who is minister to Duke University and Dean of the Chapel, notes something akin to nostalgia as he looks through his office window. Sitting on ground level, he is able to see the many tourists who on every day of every year come to look at Duke’s great neo-Gothic cathedral — to stand in it and have their pictures made in front of it. And why is there, he asks, such a steady stream?
Perhaps, he answers himself, it’s be cause in a world such as ours, transitory and unsettled as it is, in a world where there is so much change and people so aware of it, “it is encouraging to encounter something that is substantial.” Perhaps. But beware.
It was a building more substantial yet, and seemingly more permanent, that the disciples saw that day in Jerusalem. The Temple it was, and the very emblem of God’s eternal favor. An imposing and impressive sight and, surely in such a world as theirs — where life was, if anything, even more transitory than ours — surely the Temple at least was permanent!
And yet Jesus foresees a time, and not that far off, when “there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Jesus knows how fleeting all things are, how foolish it is to trust in what will not last.
According to Jesus, religious enthusiasm is fleeting, and even artificial. Nations and boundaries and peace are fleeting. The earth itself is fleeting, as is its bounty. Believers can’t count on anything except persecution.
Curiously, however, Jesus says that even persecution is fleeting. There will come a time when all such tribulations end. Those who persevere to that end will gain their souls.
All that remains, in other words, is faith. All that endures is faith. Faith in the God who is and was and is to come is all that will preserve us through all the changes. Faith and faithfulness will endure, though the Temple and the world and Duke Chapel be laid waste. Faith and faithfulness will endure, though iron curtains and soviet unions shatter. Faith and faithfulness will endure, though stocks and markets and economies crash. Faith and faithfulness will endure through all the changes that come our way, though life itself shall end.
And those who endure to the end will gain their souls. (TRS)
Last Sunday After Pentecost
November 22, 1992
The Praising Crowd
The text transports us to the midst of celebration! The jubilation is mounting to a feverish frenzy. The Passover Festival is a time when God’s people are dramatically reminded of God’s delivering hands liberating an overwhelmingly oppressed people from a menacing enemy after 400 years of bondage.
The figure of Jesus is visible, riding on a young donkey on His way from performing a miracle, Lazarus’ resurrection; He is riding to His death. Between the two events, there is a sinister pause, as if to accentuate the hurt that was to come. It came in an unusual twist of fate. Jesus knew a cross awaited Him in Jerusalem, and the crowds for whom He would die would call for His crucifixion. But now they called for a coronation. What irony!
For the moment, these fickle people journeyed with Jesus from the tiny village of Bethany to the sprawling suburbs of Jerusalem. Temporarily they sing the Psalms of Hallel (Psalms 113-118) to the glory of Jesus. Momentarily they would view Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Deliverer, the One Who Was To Come. To them it must have been only a matter of time until the trumpets rang out, the call to arms sounded, and the Jewish nation would be swept to its long-delayed victory over Rome and the world.
It was a praising, joyous crowd that journeyed with Jesus that day. But it was a short-lived celebration! Let’s linger with the praising people of God — not temporarily, but permanently.
I. Praising People Meet Jesus (v. 12)
People ran together to get involved with the celebration. Viewed collectively only the masses of humanity can be seen; however, each crowd is composed of single individuals.
Today you may hear about Jesus in a crowd, a church worship service, a Sunday school class, a revival service, a youth rally, a seminar, a ladies’ or men’s meeting, or a Bible study; but you must meet Him on a one-to-one basis to be a true part of His crowd! It’s by personal invitation and acceptance that we enter into the celebration.
II. Praising People Meet Jesus With Commitment (v. 13)
The word Hosanna in the Hebrew means, “save now.” These folks knew that if salvation was to come, it was to come “now …,” at the present moment.
Salvation “now” comes through conviction. The concept of conviction is like an alarm clock that rings to let you know that it is time to awaken from a deep sleep.
Salvation “now” comes through repentance. It is not enough to be awakened by the alarm clock if it doesn’t result in actually getting up! If we are to be saved and be in the praising crowd, then we must arise from our sin through faith in Christ!
Salvation “now” comes through obedience, the true test of salvation.
III. Praising People Meet Jesus and Proclaim Him! (v. 17)
There is one thing about a praising crowd — everybody knows it. It is not natural to keep silent when the news is so exciting and important. If we are to offer authentic praise, then we are commissioned by Christ to tell the wonderful story of grace. How could we keep still? Let’s praise Him! (DGK)
First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 1992
I conduct many funeral services in the small city where I live. Each time I stand behind the pulpit it is a reminder that death is no respecter of persons. Paul put it this way: “… you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for the coming of the Lord is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11, TLB).
While in this life, you have been given the choice of living a good life or a bad life. You may accept God or reject Him, living a life that incorporates the lifestyle of Jesus or that of Satan into its very fabric.
In these moments of honesty, which lifestyle are you living, today?
I. Good Living Consists of a Convicted Lifestyle
The Living Bible says, “Wake up” (v. 11). “Be alert,” “get smart about life” would be other ways of expressing the idea. In my denomination a common term is “conviction.” This conveys the idea that it is God who awakens the conscience to the right way of living. God’s Spirit convicts the person of the sinful life he is living and offers that person the opportunity to change.
Each individual has the right to respond positively or negatively to the Spirit’s request. Beyond salvation, when anyone asks Christ into his life, there continues to be the furthering conviction of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life. Continually the Spirit of God probes and uncovers actions, reactions, and attitudes that are contrary to the life of Christ. The Christian must rid himself of these obstacles in order to continue growing in the light of Jesus.
Conviction by the Spirit also places positive things on the heart to be accomplished for the Kingdom. The conviction may involve particular people to pray for, or to witness, to accept a teaching or preaching assignment, a neighbor to befriend, to give finances beyond our tithes.
Recently I was driving to Lansing, Michigan, about a hundred miles from my house. It was a warm day, I had eaten lunch with my wife and two friends, and was listening to relaxing music on the car radio. Life was wonderful! I began to notice my eyelids becoming heavy, and the music seemed to be playing somewhere off in the distance. The next thing I knew I was abruptly stopping at an unfamiliar stop sign.
I had fallen asleep at the wheel! As I awoke, I was disoriented and confused. Somehow I had managed to stay on the road, but I had made a wrong turn and was going opposite the direction to Lansing! It was a frightening experience.
Today God is convicting people of he fact they are going the wrong way in life. Do you need to awaken and turn your life in the right direction?
II. Good Living Consists of a Clean Lifestyle
“Holiness unto the Lord” should be our watchword. Some actions will not be a part of the lifestyle of the Christian because of our desire to live in the image of Jesus.
William Barclay describes these undesirable actions as: unholy revelry which lowers a person’s self and makes him a nuisance to others; drunkenness, which includes alcohol but could also mean any intoxication that makes us lose our judgment; immorality, which robs us of fidelity; shamelessness, or that which has a person lost in lust to the point that they do not care who knows or sees; contention, which is the spirit of unholy competition that even invades the church; and envy, which begrudges another person of what he or she has in life.
Do these characteristics describe your lifestyle: Today, let God give you a clean lifestyle.
III. Good Living Consists of a Consummate Lifestyle
The idea of the word “consummate” is to finish, achieve, perfect or mature. Our faith in Christ will be complete as we trust in Him. Goodness is the demonstration to the end of that belief in Jesus. Our maturity comes as we grow in grace and age in Christ as we travel this journey with Him.
During an auto race I was watching, one of the cars blew an engine. I thought the race was over for that car and driver, but to my astonishment the driver got out of his vehicle and pushed it! He finished the race.
If we think that life is always going to be easy we are mistaken. There will be times when we will have to do a little pushing of our own, but our goal is to make it over the finish line. The exciting fact is that we don’t have to push alone, God will help us. He wants us to make it over the finish line, too! (DGK)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: C. Thomas Hilton, Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Pompano Beach, CA; Patrick R. Brans, Pastor, Faith United Methodist Church, Genoa, IL; Steven R. Fleming, Pastor, First United Presbyterian Church, Westminster, MD; Thomas R. Steagald, Pastor, Highlands United Methodist Church, Highlands, NC; and Derl G. Keefer, Pastor, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI.
17th Sunday After Pentecost