Title: A Short and Joyful History
Date: Feb. 8, 2009
Author: Tom Lehman
OPENNG PRAYER. O Lord, guide our thoughts, that we might better understand you, and better understand ourselves as your children.
In today’s lectionary reading from the first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul describes his missionary strategy, and makes two penetrating claims. In verses 19ff he declares that he has made himself a slave to all, in order to win more of them to the gospel. His approach is familiar, and I abbreviate it as follows: “20To the Jews I became as a Jew… To those under the law I became as one under the law… 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law …. 22To the weak I became weak…. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.” From this we can draw the obvious conclusion that the Gospel is for everyone. Paul is preaching with great zeal. He is a driven man – driven to spread the Gospel.
After reading this many times in the past month, I suddenly started to see it from a different angle. Paul assumes a core gospel message, but here he recognizes legitimate differences in the approach to it. Carrying this forward to the present, personal histories and cultural experiences make it wise and even necessary to present the gospel in a manner appropriate to the listeners, each of whom is unique to some extent. There is a core gospel, but we should never try to enclose it in a box of our own making. Others will understand things differently.
In verses 16 – 18 Paul makes his argument in support of his commitment to present the Gospel to listeners at no cost. He says: “18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge.” Surely Paul accepted free hospitality from his hosts in the course of his three missionary journeys. But his point is that he refused payment for his efforts to spread the Gospel. By keeping himself free of any financial ties to anyone, he can adjust his message to suit the audience in every circumstance. (Some of our most gifted TV preachers raise so much money for their work that they should find it hard to preach on this passage.)
Again leaping two thousand years ahead, this is in sharp contrast to the experience of today’s itinerant politicians when they run for office. All of them must raise lots of money, and in so doing become obligated to wealthy donors to some degree. Paul sets a standard that Americans who seek high office cannot possibly meet in promoting their political “gospel.”
Our passage in Mark Chapter 1 tells of a visit by Jesus and a handful of disciples to the home of Simon, later named Peter. His mother-in-law is ill with a fever, and when Jesus is told this, he heals her. The disciples have just come to the home from the nearby synagogue, which tells us that it is the Sabbath. Strict Jews criticize anyone who does the work of healing on the Sabbath, but this is done inside the house, i.e., in private. However, the word seems to have spread throughout the neighborhood quite quickly, because at sunset, when the Jewish day ends, and the work of healing can begin, many people who were sick or demon-possessed gathered outside the door of the house. Jesus responded by healing many people of various diseases, and casting out demons.
Mark clearly suggests that healing is an integral part of what Jesus came to do. Willard Swartley sees Jesus’ work of healing as evidence of his kingly power. (1)
In our culture we generally regard preaching and healing as separate professions; some take this as evidence that most western Christians have become too professional. We are suspicious of denominations that intermingle preaching and healing too freely. We are pleased when persons for whom we pray at the end of our worship are spared affliction, or are healed, but we don’t think primarily in terms of faith healing.
In NT times the expectations were different: Duke professor Joel Marcus writes “Mark portrays a very close connection between exorcism and the preaching of the good news…God’s arrival means the destruction of the evil powers that have usurped his rightful rule over the world.” (2) I would be perfectly happy to leave all talk of exorcism tucked away in the New Testament, and to assume that whatever psychological devils are still around are now treated by psychiatrists with modern medicine. But I may be avoiding reality. Sheila Cassiday, a British medical doctor and writer, has said that “Hatred is a devil to be cast out, and we must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving our enemies that we are healed.” (3) Major dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church have their own exorcists, and the Vatican’s chief exorcist has condemned the Harry Potter books. (Various websites)
I wish that were the end of the story, but it is not. Isaac told me after last week’s sermon on demons that a Mennonite had practiced exorcism in the Indiana-Michigan Conference. That shocked me, so I checked with my sister, a longtime pastor in Goshen, and very familiar with things there. I learned that the self-proclaimed exorcist worked with the Amish and persons who had left the Amish; he considered them particularly vulnerable to demon-possession. He was not a part of the Conference structure. If there is any good news for those of us who don’t know what to make of this, it is that the Indiana-Michigan Conference is taking no steps to replace the exorcist, who died recently. May he rest in peace.
Isaiah, in Chapter 40, intends to lift the spirits of the Jews, many of whom have been in exile in Babylon for years. He reminds them that their God is more powerful than the rulers of this world, and that God will come to their rescue. But first he confronts them, saying in verse 21:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” This he repeats in verse 28. In a modern idiom he’s saying, Don’t you get it? There’s more than a hint that he is scolding his listeners, whose faith in God has lapsed during years of exile when they were conquered and removed from the Promised Land, now known as Israel and Palestine.
However, Isaiah’s mood is overwhelmingly positive. He sings the praises of the God of Israel in beautiful poetry:
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Next Isaiah imagines God speaking, and pointing to the stars as proof of his power:
To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?
26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?
Isaiah has God asking a question that Isaiah eagerly answers, in these words:
He is great in strength, mighty in power…
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
Isaiah then leaves the starry heavens and has God meeting earthly needs, as follows:
29He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
This sermon is unusual in at least one respect: I have worked backward from 1 Corinthians to Mark to Isaiah, and now finally to Psalm 147. It sings the praises of God for his dominion over the cosmos, and again for sustaining the world and watching over nature. The Psalmist’s praises run throughout the Psalm; consider these lines:
5Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure.
6The Lord lifts up the downtrodden
Verses 10 and 11 contain two statements about God that deserve particular attention:
10His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;*
11but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
A commentator gives the word “trust” as the true sense of “fear” in the phrase “those who fear him.” Thus God’s favor is bestowed on those who trust Him, not on those with great speed or strength. This is quite contrary to the human tendency to admire persons who show physical prowess, e.g., Olympic or ACC or Super Bowl athletes. We all have the same prospects of obtaining God’s favor, and the Psalmist three times says “Praise the Lord.”
Matt Thiessen said in a sermon some months ago, “God’s people are constantly called to remember. That is, God’s people are committed to history.” So, let’s do a short history.
Today presents it own reason for praise. It is exactly the fifth anniversary of our first Membership Sunday. On that evening 22 persons became charter members, of whom eleven still worship with us. Prior to this evening, we have added new members on nine occasions for a total of 46 persons. Of these, 27 are still worshiping with us.
Today we welcome Laura and David Nickel as members. This congregation existed for somewhat more than two years prior to our first Membership Sunday. We considered the possibility of drawing up a list of members with a certain leisure; one astute participant noted that things were going along wonderfully, so why trouble ourselves over a membership list? A simple reply was offered: churches have members. It was not known, then or now, if that line convinced anyone, but we went ahead with the event. In any case, we have made little distinction between members and others who regularly worship with us. As many of you know, you are all exposed to invitations to take responsibility for some part of worship.
I often reflect on my great enthusiasm for this congregation. In so doing I find reasons to rejoice and to praise the Lord:
1 For the richness of simple weekly worship services
2 For our pastor, his wife, and our pastoral intern
3 For our life together as we help, encourage, laugh, and sometimes even build with each other during the week
4 For the enrichment of our worship gained by extensive use of the Hymnal. We have sung more than 60% of its hymns
5 For all who labor faithfully to make Sunday School a reality
6 For small groups that give us a relaxed means of entering each others’ lives
7 For our infants and children, all of whom have been born in good health
8 For our nearness to Duke Divinity School, a few of whose students have been a part of this congregation from the start, and who have shaped us at all times
9 For our friends the Friends, kind hosts who give us main floor worship space at a bargain basement price
10 For the great range of talents that make up this body of believers and practitioners of the faith. (Dave’s new pulpit is just one example.)
11 For tolerance of diversity and the absence of divisiveness (May this great blessing never depart.)
12 For new people who add their gifts to the whole and make us more able to worship and to build the Kingdom
13 For our moderator, treasurer, deacons and committee members who work behind the scenes to make things go smoothly.
14 Some of you have reported job losses by family members. But I do not know of anyone in the congregation who has so far suffered any loss of salary or funding. With North Carolina unemployment nearing 9%, this is a source of joy.
15 For a universal willingness not merely to come to worship, but to contribute to it. Since the beginning of September, 44 people have been named in the bulletin for their part in worship, and two others have been named for the weekday work of the church. That makes 46, by coincidence also the number of people who have ever been members.
Johann Sebastian Bach signed some of his major compositions with the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone Be the Glory. May we say the same of this congregation – To God alone be the glory – and may we today go from this place rejoicing.
(1) Willard Swartley, Covenant of Peace. Eerdmans, 2006, p 75
(2) Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8; Anchor Bible, 1999, p 204
(3) Quote attributed to Sheila Cassidy by Walter Wink in When the Powers Fall. I found the quote in Willard Swartley, Covenant of Peace, Eerdmans, 2006, p. 59.