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God Believes in You

(a sermon for January 13, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

It is very striking to me that while the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just shared ends with the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “like a dove,” it actually begins in an atmosphere of turmoil, with the threat of such a baptism being something akin to “chaff [burning] with unquenchable fire.”

It was one of the very first infant baptisms at which I had the honor and joy of officiating as a newly-minted pastor; and since at that little church where I was serving we didn’t often have the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament, let me tell you it was a big deal not just for me but for the whole congregation! Not only were we anticipating a much larger than usual congregation that morning, there was also going to be this huge reception afterward; plus – and I’ll take some credit for this (!) – since, again, this kind of thing didn’t happen all that much in the life of that congregation, we decided that this baptism would provide the perfect “teachable moment” for the children of our small Sunday School.  What would happen, you see, is that we’d spend some time before worship teaching the kids all about baptism – what it means, how it happens and why it’s such a special time of celebration – and then they’d come into what was referred to there as “big church,” sitting all together in the front pew to watch and see Rev. Lowry baptize this little baby!

Perfect, right?  What creative, progressive Sunday School is supposed to be all about (at least circa 1983!), right? Well, maybe; except that just before worship as I’m about to enter the sanctuary one of the Sunday School teachers rushes up to me and says, “You better come out back with me right now… because we’ve got a problem.”  And yes, we did; apparently, just about the time the teachers had begun to explain what their minister was about to do out there during the service, one of the little girls in our Sunday School – maybe five or six years old and whose family had actually just started coming to our church  – started crying.  I mean, really crying: weeping, wailing and utterly inconsolable!  And by the time I got there, it had only gotten worse: this little girl was now at the point where she could barely take a breath between wails; she just kept pointing her finger at me and crying for all she was worth, “No, no, no, no NOOO!”  Trust me, nothing was calming this little girl down, most especially not the efforts of the student minister who for all his bright ideas was absolutely clueless as to how to resolve the situation!

Eventually, thanks to her mother who, thankfully, was very quickly on the scene, we got to the heart of the matter: that somehow this little girl had gotten it into her head that in this baptism I was about to perform, that strange man in the robe might actually drown the baby, and that idea was terrifying to her and so of course she cried!  But here’s the thing: as silly and as bizarre as that sounds as I’m telling you about it now, her fear was actually based on some reality; for it turned out the only other church this little girl ever been to in her young life was of the variety where adult baptisms were the norm, and then only by immersion!  So basically, all that she remembered about baptism involved people being placed fully underwater at the hand of a minister (!); so thinking about that in relation to a tiny, helpless baby… well, no wonder the girl was crying her lungs out!  Suffice to say that once we understood what was happening, we were able to explain that our baptisms had to do with sprinkling rather than dunking (!) and that rather than being in any kind of danger the baby was perfectly safe, and loved, and yes, even blessed!  It did turn out to be a teachable moment in more ways than one (!) and, as I recall, all went well from that point on; nonetheless, even as the baptism was taking place I could still feel that one little girl’s steely gaze on me the whole time from her seat in the front pew… just in case I got any ideas!

Well, there was a different, but no less intense, sort of turmoil on the day of Jesus’ baptism, and what’s interesting about our text for this morning is what leads up to Luke’s account of this very dramatic and important event almost seems to have more to do with what James Howell refers to as the full “ferocious mood” of John the Baptist than it even does with Jesus! Even before we pick up the story today, Luke’s already treated us to some of the ravings of this so-called wild man of the wilderness:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7, 9)  Not exactly a feel-good prelude to a baptismal celebration!

But we need to understand there was a method to this “madness,” as it were:  that John was in fact, explicitly proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling the people of Jesus’ time to abandon their sin and turn their hearts wholly back to God, so that they might truly be ready for the Messiah who had in fact already come.  Moreover, we’re told, John had not at all been reticent about speaking truth to power and for all his troubles was  just about to be “shut up” in prison by none other than Herod Antipas himself!  All this to say that Jesus’ baptism, this incredible scene of divine affirmation and blessing, all happens within a backdrop not only of sin and degradation, but also “in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belliger[ence]” on John’s part and even “not shying away from the use of brute force!” (James Howell, again)

Which makes it all the more amazing that this is the scene in which Jesus – this man without sin, this Messiah, this one destined to baptize his followers by the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John did not even consider himself worthy to untie (!) – walks right up to his cousin (‘cause remember, Jesus and John do happen to be related!) and asks to receive this baptism of repentance.

And now, here’s Jesus, going under the water (no sprinkling here; it’s full immersion in the waters of River Jordan) and then coming up out of the water.  Here’s Jesus, praying his own post-baptismal prayer, when suddenly the sky “opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.”  And then here’s a voice, speaking directly to Jesus himself, but in a way that all who were gathered could hear:  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” or, as The Message translates it, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  Again I say it:  amazing… amazing that in a world filled with such turmoil and marked by such sin and conflict amongst the people that a baptism of repentance would be necessary for the sake of their souls, the power and glory of God to destroy evil in the person of his Son Jesus, the one chosen and marked by his love. The infamous theologian Karl Barth put it this way: that this baptism was more than mere theatrics; for “when Jesus was baptized, he needed to be be washed of sin – not his sin, but our sin.”  For you see, right from the very start, you see, it was about our forgiveness and our redemption; by offering to wash our sins away in his baptism, Jesus provides you and me a new baptism… a baptism of promise.

Actually, it all comes down to a very basic and dare I say, singular Christian truth:  that God believes in you.  God believes in you, friends, and he believes in me; enough that he would claim us and reclaim us as his own again and again, even as we stand in strong need of repentance because of sin and our utter unworthiness before God. And lest you think this preacher’s becoming overly judgmental, let’s be clear: with the exception of Jesus, we are all sinners, all unworthy and all without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.  But the good news is… because of Jesus, who was baptized and now offers us the baptism of promise, God believes in us; we also are “precious in his sight, and honored and beloved” by God; and because of this we are saved indeed.

Over the years in various congregations where I’ve served as pastor, I’ve have the privilege of leading confirmation classes for the churches’ youth and young adults.  Confirmation, of course, is the rite of the church where those who were baptized as infants are given the opportunity as young adults, after prayer and study, to “confirm” the Christian faith as their own, which has proven to be an interesting and often enlightening experience for confirmand and pastor alike.

Which is not to say it was always easy:  like the year there was this rather headstrong and opinionated ninth grader in the class who right from the “get-go” seemed determined to challenge every bit of spiritual wisdom I ever sought to impart!  And it began the very first day:  I’d just finished explaining all the requirements that our church and its pastor had for them to be confirmed later that spring, and immediately this kid (whose name was Jason) raises his hand to ask, “Rev. Lowry, does being an atheist make a difference on whether I can be confirmed?” Well, yes, Jason, it kind of does, I answered, and then adding in a very pastor-like fashion, but the question is, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?  “Do you have to believe in something?” Jason persisted.  Well … nooo, I said, you don’t have to, I suppose, but it’s kind of hard not to believe in at least one thing in your life.  “Like what?” Jason would reply, and we were off on to a dialogue that continued pretty much uninterrupted for the next eight months and which led, years later and long after he wasn’t confirmed, to a mature Christian faith nurtured and confessed in the mission field.

Actually, as I think back on it such has been the questions and dialogue I’ve shared with a lot of folks over the years:  “Does it make a difference if I believe in God, because I’m not sure I believe?”  Sometimes that question is borne out of an honest, sincere and relentless search for the truth; often it’s the result of a crisis in somebody’s life that has led to a crisis in faith; and maybe it’s the eventual and inevitable result of just so much piling on that there’s simply no more strength or will left to believe in… anything!  And quite frankly, there are those in this life who are determined to direct their lives in any direction except toward the divine, and who have a tendency to not so much ask questions about God as to fire them at you!

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the truth is while there’s a whole lot I can and do say to that, there’s also very little that I can say; because even as a pastor, I can’t force anybody to believe in God.  All the sermons, proclamations and apologetic in the world mean nothing without an open heart to receive that message! But I can say this, something I believe in my heart of hearts: that while you may not believe in God – today, or tomorrow, or ever – I am sure that God believes in you.  I know this as surely as the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow morning and that the new life of spring will surely, if eventually, follow the dead of winter; I see it in the wonder and beauty of nature, in the strength and resilience of the human Spirit, and in hope, joy and peace that can only be the handiwork of an infinitely loving God… and I know it because Jesus has already made it real in his sure and certain promise of life abundant and eternal.

Perhaps you’ve come here today not at all sure that you believe… or at least that maybe you have a few doubts; and if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here.  Because this, beloved, is the place where we rejoice in the God who does believe in us so much that he reminds us again and again, “Do not fear,  for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…” and why?  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

You are precious in my sight! You are honored to me!  I love you… I love you!

God believes… thanks be to God, he believes!  I hope and I pray this day, beloved, that this will help you to believe as well!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Remembering the Future

(a sermon for November 4, 2018, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

You might call him… “The Unknown Prophet.”

Because in truth of fact, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet who is named “Habakkuk.”  His words occupy a scant three chapters near the end of the Old Testament, and he’s almost overlooked amid a sea of so-called “minor prophets,” sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah. Even the meaning of his name is shrouded in mystery:  some biblical scholars have suggested that Habakkuk means “to embrace” or “to clasp,” as in hands clasped in prayer, while others say that it’s simply a boy’s name derived from an ancient Hebrew word for a certain plant or vegetable!  We’re not even totally sure when Habakkuk lived and prophesied; he might have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and could have lived around about the 5th Century B.C.; again, we just don’t know for sure.

We do have a sense, however, that this particular prophetic word – it’s referred to here as an “oracle” – was given, as one commentator has put it, “in a time of dread,” in anticipation of an impending invasion by a foreign enemy, more than likely the Babylonians who had already invaded Judah, taken over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and now threatened total control over Palestine as a whole; a situation that did not sit at all well with Habakkuk.

In fact, if it sounded as though the words in those first few verses we read this morning were rife with anger, you heard correctly; indeed, though it is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Habakkuk remains one of the most poignant and painful passages found in all of Holy Scripture!  Biblically and literarily speaking, this particular passage is considered to be a “lament,” (that is, a profound expression of loss) but that’s putting it mildly; what we actually have here is quite literally a complaint unto God!  It’s all right there in the very first verse: “O LORD, how long shall I call for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”   How long, O Lord?  After all, the “wicked surround the righteous,” and we are most definitely outnumbered!  I ask for justice, he says, yet all I see is destruction, strife, and contention.  I ask for peace, yet all there is before me is hopelessness and fear.  Judgment, he says “comes forth perverted.”

To say the least, this is heavy stuff.

One of my seminary professors back in the day used to tell us again and again that the point of all preaching is ultimately to bring the “there and then” of God’s word to the “here and now” of our lives today; that our task was ever and always to interpret these ancient texts of the Bible in such a way that it will proclaim timeless and divine truth that will sustain us along our own pilgrimages of faith.  And needless to say, that can often be difficult; after all, we didn’t live 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile; very few, if any of us can speak to what it must have felt like to have been torn from our faith and ancestral homes for a length of time that by now had spanned many generations.  Quite honestly, the kind of things that Habakkuk is lamenting here seem “long ago and far away” to our 21st century ears!

Or does it?

Actually, it seems to me that right about now we know a great deal about what it is to live in “a time of dread.”  I mean, in the past couple of weeks alone our eyes and ears have beheld the worst of what the world and its woefully misguided people can dish out; from the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh to the bombing threats throughout the country, all of it underscored by the ongoing and increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric that has permeated both the airwaves and our political discourse as the mid-term elections are approaching.  And the saddest part of all is that this kind of violence and hatred is swiftly becoming “the new norm” in our culture!   It’s no wonder that so many these days are looking at this situation we’re in as a nation and a people, and desperately asking the question, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Perhaps Habakkuk’s lament isn’t all that removed from our own after all!

For that matter, anyone of us who has ever hoped and prayed to the Lord with their whole hearts for some semblance of relief in their lives – the healing of a sickness, the solution to a problem, the resolution of a conflict, the lessening of deep and profound grief – only to continue feeling the pain of those experiences all the more deeply also knows what it is to cry out in the midst of our tears, “how long, O Lord, how long?”   When we’ve “been through the ringer,” so to speak, we know what it is to wonder where God has been and why nothing has seemed to have changed.  In the words of H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., writing about his own “dark night of the soul” in his book Preaching Through a Storm, “[The Psalm does say,] ‘weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’  But what I want to know is, ‘how long is the night?’”

That’s what Habakkuk’s lament is all about; and sadly it’s just as relevant “here and now” as it was “there and then.”  But the good news is God’s Word does indeed have something to say to us amidst our own “times of dread.”  You see, the thing about laments – most especially those of the biblical variety – is that they always begin in utter despair but they end in the sure and certain hope of God.  And our text for this morning shows us just that: the movement of Habakkuk’s own dialogue with God, going from confusion and uncertainty to faith and purpose; from challenging God to heeding God’s Word!  Turns out, you see, that the Lord has very specific advice in how we are to deal with these “times of dread,” and it starts with remembering the future: but not the dreaded future of our fear and despair, but rather the envisioned future; the promised future that God had already set before us, but which may have gotten lost in our hearts somewhere along the way

Actually, in those couple of verses in the second chapter of Habakkuk are three steps for remembering God’s promised future; and the first is to write it down.  “Write the vision,” the Lord says.  “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, be clear about what it is that God has set before you and let it loom large in your lives for you and everybody else to see.  If you truly believe in the providence and guidance of the Lord our God, then proclaim it; proclaim it again and again, and not in a small way but in a fashion that can be clearly understood.  Then the vision becomes palpable and real even if everything else around you seems to discount it.

I’m reminded here of those billboards that you still see along some highways across the country; you know the ones, the ones that say things like, “You know that love your neighbor thing?  I meant it. God;” or “Will the road you’re on get you to my house? God;” or my personal favorite, “Don’t make me come down there! God.”  This was one way, albeit one a bit unconventional, of writing the vision; of expressing the truth of a spiritual, Godly life in letters quite literally large enough for everyone to see.  The point is that those of us who are people of faith need to know and express what we believe, and to do so boldly.  That does not mean “forcing” our faith on people, but it does mean staying focused on our faith even when “the vision” seems blurred in the face of circumstances that at the moment seem bleak and barren.

So write the vision; and secondly, be patient.  Because the vision, however it is expressed – in health, through wholeness, in freedom or in peace – awaits an appointed time:  “It speaks of the end,” says the Lord, “and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”  Many times over the years as a pastor I have spoken with people whose primary spiritual struggle has been with the belief that their prayers are not being answered quickly enough.  Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that quite as harsh as it sounds (!); it’s simply speaks to a very human truth that for most of us it is difficult to prayerfully wait out the struggle; that is, to let the Lord work out the good in his time and fashion, and not ours.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that in this high-tech era we’re too used to quick gratification and resolution:  I mean, we like our TV shows ”on demand,” our computers to be speedy and glitch free, and our conflicts to be swiftly resolved; it’s not in our post-modern sensibilities tohave to wait weeks, months or years for things to “work out.”  Or maybe the truth is that we’re losing the capacity to completely trust God, letting go of our own control of whatever situation is ours and trusting that God’s Spirit will lead us in directions, however measured that lead will be.

One of the other great lessons I learned back in seminary as I did clinical pastoral education at Eastern Maine Medical Center is that as a pastor I couldn’t always instantly “make it all better.”  As a young buck of a pastor, that was hard for me!   I wanted to bound into the rooms of these sick people and “fix ‘em right up,” spiritually speaking at least.  But, as one of my advisors reminded me, most of these folks had been sick for a long time.  They didn’t need quick fixes; they needed to know that God was with them slowly and steadily, bringing them strength and healing with every long, passing moment.  Be patient; for with every passing moment God is working his vision out; slowly, steadily and even in the face of all opposition.

So be patient… and finally, says the Lord, live in faithfulness.  “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live in faith.”  It’s important for those of us who seek to keep the faith to live faithfully; and that means being faithful to the law, just in our own relationships, and pious (in a good way!) about our own religious observances.  Throughout scripture, we are called to choose life over death.  When we choose life, we are making the choice to live in fidelity to God; and the fullness and abundance of life is our reward.

In other words, beloved, at some point in our struggle, it ceases to be about what’s wrong with things.  It stops being about our fear over the elections or how the people who don’t agree with us are going to ruin the world; it’s not even about whether or not everything is working out for us as it should.  It stops being about whose fault it is, or how bad we’ve been hurt by what they’ve done to us.  At some point, it starts being about how we are, how we live, how we choose to respond to these times of dread, and whether or not we truly know God’s vision and remember his future as we live this life.

For us as God’s people, a full life is always defined by faithfulness; and in faithfulness, we can live joyfully, no matter what.  That’s how some people can move on from the tragedies of their lives somehow stronger than before; that’s how someone in the worst of circumstances can talk of how God has given them a sense of peace and the ability to celebrate life.  It’s a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope of things, to face all the questions of justice and mercy and fairness head on and choose to live life faithfully as God’s people no matter how unjust or unfair life or the world might be.

The truth is, as the Psalmist has said, “weeping may endure for a night,” and the night may well be a long one; but joy will come with the morning!   So the question is, how we will live as the long night progresses?  How will we keep the faith? How do we keep on keeping on in this time between the now and not yet, between the promise and the prize, between the vision and its reality?  How will we live, beloved?  Will we remember God’s promised future, or will we let fear and dread cloud our memory?

The choice is ours to make, beloved; but remember that is the righteous who live by their faith, and it’s righteousness that helps us to know, even in the most uncertain of times, the presence of a power for joy and purpose and love… and that surely will change everything for the good.

For the future our Lord intends and even now is fashioning for you and for me…

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: Bringing the Good News

(a sermon for September 30, 2018, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; fourth in a series, based on  Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Romans 10:8-18)

Under the heading of not-so-vital statistics, out of curiosity this week I went to my pastoral records and discovered that as of this morning I will have preached a grand total of 1,697 sermons as a minister and teacher of the gospel.

Whoa!

Now, this number mostly accounts for Sunday morning services over thirty-plus years working in the church, and doesn’t include all the eulogies, wedding meditations or other messages that we pastors tend to bring to various and a sundry church and community gatherings.  But even considering that, all things being relatively equal, understand that this represents a total of over 34 thousand minutes – that’s 566 hours, folks (!) – standing behind some pulpit or another preaching a sermon that for better or worse I had spent most of the previous week preparing (I don’t even want to think about how many hours that entailed!).  And I realize that’s a whole lot of time spent not only by me, but also by you and by so many others who have sat in these pews listening to what I’ve had to say week in and week out; so let me just take this opportunity to say thank you for your patience!

What’s interesting is that while I certainly can’t give you specifics as to the subject and content of every one of those sermons, there are some that I do remember very, very well.  I’ll never forget, for instance, the first sermon I ever preached as a pastor of a congregation: it was entitled “I’m No Hero,” with the main illustration having to do with a television show that was running at the time about a reluctant superhero (and to this, I can only say, Oy veh, what was I thinking?)  More seriously, though I will always remember preaching the Sunday after 9/11 when all of us – pastor and congregation were clamoring for a word of hope in those very sad and uncertain days.  There were also a couple of messages over the years when I felt particularly compelled, albeit somewhat fearfully so, to bring forth some measure of biblical truth in the midst of some rather contentious situations within the congregations I was serving at the time.  And there have been a few times when despite my own best efforts but by a great abundance of God’s grace sometimes the truth that needed to be espoused at a given moment actually got spoken aloud and even better, was heard with open ears and loving hearts; and honestly, that’s pretty memorable and feels pretty good!

Preaching was one of the first things that attracted me to the ministry (way back in high school, if you can believe it!), and all these years later it still remains a favorite part of what I do.  It can be exhilarating, fulfilling, often disconcerting, sometimes headache inducing and occasionally life-changing, all at the same time (!); but that’s what keeps this task of preaching a wonderfully exciting and utterly joyous thing for me!  Of course, there is also many a Sunday morning that I step up here utterly unconvinced that there will be anything at all of value, spiritual or otherwise, coming forth from my tongue that day; but that’s a discussion for another time!

Either way, however, I will tell you that each and all of these preaching experiences have one thing in common:  and it’s that each week, after the sermon has been written and preached and the service is finished, it’s immediately time to start the process all over again for next Sunday; part of what a colleague of mine refers to as “the pesky, perpetual, predictable and persistent return of the Sabbath!”  You see, the truth is that a sermon, mine or anybody else’s, does not exist for the sake of itself – ultimately, it is not meant to exist as a stand-alone oration nor as some kind of pastoral dissertation on all things religious and theological – no, the sermon has always been intended to be but simply one facet of the whole “act and attitude of worship,” and as such is linked to everything else we do here in the midst of this service:  our prayer and our praising, our times of singing and silence and sharing, and most profoundly in the reading of holy scripture.  What I’m doing here, you see – and what we’re all involved in as we worship together – is nothing less than the “Proclamation of the Word:” God’s Word.

Our text this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans actually begins and ends with this truth: first that “the word of faith that we proclaim” is near to us, “on [our] lips and in [our hearts],” and concluding with the assertion that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”  What that means is that there is always to be a natural progression from acknowledging and embracing the faith that’s inside of us to being sent forth into the world to proclaim the truth of it in and through our very lives!  And you’ll notice that by and large that’s also the direction that our worship takes: we begin with an act of praise (usually a song or a hymn, followed by a prayer of invocation) that serves to bring forth the faith within us so that it might become the praises of our hearts and voices; but eventually we pause to hear and to reflect upon God’s Word so that afterward, when the final hymn is sung and we say the benediction, we might be sent forth strengthened, encouraged and empowered to truly be God’s people in the world!   So in many ways, it’s this “proclamation of the Word” – be it a sermon, a message or any one of a number of other forms of faithful communication – that makes this hour more than just a random group of people who come together on a Sunday morning to share a few moments of fellowship and inspiration for the living of these days; it’s that proclamation which truly sets us apart as the Body of Christ and what makes us the Church with a mission of love in the world!

And if you’re thinking right now that all this is a pretty tall order for any preacher (certainly, this preacher!) who is called to speak for 20 minutes, give or take, on a Sunday morning, you’re right.  But remember also that the proclamation of which I speak has as much to do with hearing as it does speaking.  As John Webster of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has written, the church is “not first and foremost a speaking community but a listening community… the church speaks, because it has been spoken to.”

 Faith, you see, comes from what is heard… and so what’s important about this part of the service, for me as well as for you, is listening!

It’s interesting to note the context in which Paul speaks to the Romans in our reading today is actually one of some level of frustration.  Paul, you see, is anguishing over the fact that despite the truth of the resurrection, most Jews of the time were still seeking righteousness through the law for their salvation rather than through faith in Christ.  For Paul this was inconceivable and what’s more, unnecessary:  after all, there is “no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  But, and this is where Paul gets to the heart of the matter, “how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?”  And “how can they hear if nobody tells them?  And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?” [The Message] 

It all comes down to the proclamation, you see; it’s all about “bringing the good news” to those who would have ears to hear!  And let me tell you; the anguish that Paul was feeling for those who would not receive that graceful gift of salvation that comes in Christ remains the anguish in this day and age!  I cannot begin to tell you the number of instances and number of people I meet who, once they realize what I do for a living, are very quick to dismiss what and who it is I represent.  “I’m not really into religion,” they’ll say to me, or else something to the effect that while I seem like a nice guy and everything, they don’t want to come to church and be “preached at,” and I’m never sure how to respond to that except to explain that while that might be the “style,” shall we say, of others that’s not what we’re about as a church and certainly not what I’m about as a minister!  I always come away from that kind of conversation not only feeling badly that I couldn’t “close the deal,” so to speak, but also wondering how people like that can come to faith in Christ when they’ve never truly heard that truth, that Word, proclaimed!

But then I remember that faith comes through hearing… and hearing the “proclamation of the Word” can take a variety of forms and comes from a variety of people.

Last week, what with the beginning of Sunday School, I found myself reminiscing about all the Vacation Bible Schools Lisa and I were involved in at various churches over the years.  One year that I remember very well, the program happened to be centered around the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. And I, in a shining example of casting against type, was drafted to play the role of Pharoah; which meant, of course, that all week I was generally and rather joyfully verbally and physically abused with all manner of plague, and, moreover, all that week every time a kid requested that I let God’s people go, I would have to vehemently and angrily refuse in a highly Shakespearean manner!

In truth, it was a lot of fun (as you know, I can be a ham at times!), the kids enjoyed it, and the great thing about VBS every year was that there were always a lot of kids there who weren’t part of our church, or any church for that matter.  And to bear witness to what was often these kids’ very first awareness of God’s presence and power in their own lives was an amazing thing that got revealed to us in strange ways.

To whit, about six months later, I was volunteering at a story day at our local intermediate school; I’m walking down the corridor, guitar in hand, and way down the end of the hall I spy this little head bobbing in and out of the doorway of the school office.  And as if he were doing a double take, a second later, out pops that head again, and smiling this incredible grin as he comes out to the hall, this boy spreads wide both his arms and cries out way too loudly, “LET MY PEOPLE GOOOO!!!”

They never asked me to volunteer at the school again… I don’t know why… (!)

Yes, it was one of those anonymous, “unchurched” kids who’d turned up at VBS the summer before, one of these children who’d heard this incredible story of God’s power and love for the first time, and six months later… not only remembered, and was still thinking about it!  The whole thing made me laugh; but it also got me to thinking about how a little bit of good news was brought to that little one; how the Word was proclaimed and perhaps took root and grew in that very unique and special way.

Maybe it happens in a sermon; but it might also be revealed in a Sunday School story or a children’s ministry, or else a choir anthem or a prayer request shared; or for that matter, maybe it all happens in some random act of kindness or simply a kind word spoken at just the right time.  But who knows how the word might actually be proclaimed until it happens?   What is it that Frederick Buechner wrote about how the love of Lord gets through to those who seeking out faith?  He says that for every believer, there’s this incredible moment of divine awareness when the love of the Lord has hit them from the top of their head to the tips of their toes.  Who knows exactly when or where or how that may happen; but, Buechner writes, maybe for one seeker, “the moment that has to happen is YOU.”

And the point of all of this is that before that moment happens, you and I need to be here and worshiping, listening to God’s Word proclaimed; opening ourselves to the Spirit’s leading so that we might bring that good news with others.   For we can never truly know the impact of speaking to others that which we’ve heard in faith and in love.  What we all hear in this time of worship can be the very message that will change a heart forever; it can be the thing that will bring change and peace to a world in need of need of both!

So let us not hold back; let us go forth to share the truth that is ours in Jesus Christ.  As it says in Deuteronomy about the commandments, “Recite them to your children, talk about them when are home, and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”  Truly, as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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