This is not a typical sermon. At first it is not a sermon at all. I am going to start well off the subject, and even when it starts to sound like a sermon its purpose will not be fully apparent until the summary at the end.
This congregation started without a pastor. We spent the first five years rotating the preaching responsibilities around a small group of graduate students and others. It has even been suggested, off the record, of course, that we were fortunate not to have some pastor sent to town by the Virginia Mennonite Conference to create a Mennonite congregation. We were free to find out by ourselves what kind of group of believers we wished to become. You are experiencing the result.
Very early one of our most influential members declared that “We will use the lectionary; otherwise everyone will preach on his favorite topic.” That was good advice. After about five years we felt we could call Isaac as pastor. He stayed for fifteen years. Isaac did much of the preaching but we continued to hear others in the congregation. We have used the Revised Common Lectionary as the scriptural basis of worship almost continuously. It is a three-year cycle of weekly scripture passages called lections, though we never use that curious word. The Revised Common Lectionary is a service of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in Nashville, in case you are wondering. The lectionary does not quite come straight from heaven.
As an occasional preacher for twenty years I have thus had a lot of contact with the lectionary. The question that has long been around is whether the four passages per week are meant to give the preacher a choice, or whether one is supposed to make at least some use of all of them in a sermon, on the assumption that the same ideal theme is found in all four. After some years on the all-four plan I set it aside. However, when I read today’s four passages I immediately saw a common theme.
I have been influenced by the declaration a few years ago of a very practical theologian, who spoke in a robust, deep voice that I cannot imitate. He said: “Preach the Old Testament.” The words of Dr. Steve Jolley. Today I start in the Old Testament.
The long book of Isaiah – 66 chapters – exists in at least two sections and perhaps three. Chapter 49 is in the second section, in which the writer attempts to lift the spirits of the people of Israel, most of whom are captives in Babylon. They are about to be released to return to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which was sacked when the inhabitants were taken captive. The chapter opens with these words:
“Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.”
These are stirring words, and we need to know who is speaking. Verse 3 gives us some help:
“You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.
Verses 5 and 6 name another speaker:
“And now the Lord says...
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
My astonishment with this “light for the Gentiles” is that it says the Old Testament is not for the Jewish people alone, but that you and I can read it and learn from it just as the Jews have done for two thousand years. Christians might interpret the Old Testament in revealing new ways. We tend to believe that the spreading of the Gospel was primarily the work of the Apostle Paul, which is of course true. (We will get to him soon.) But here we have the Old Testament proclaimed as a universal message in the same way.
I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”
Isaiah’s faith is very strong; he is sure that God is with him. He has made great gains by serving God.
This is considered a psalm of David, who started as a shepherd boy and rose to become king of the Jews. These lines from the psalm show what benefits David received from praising the Lord.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.
I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”
Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
may your love and faithfulness always protect me.”
Like Isaiah, good things have come to David because of his relationship to God: a firm place to stand, a new song, God’s law in his heart, and God’s protection. His career has good benefits.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The apostle Paul begins to write to the believers in Corinth in our first New Testament reading. Corinth is the English word for the Greek city of KORinthos, located straight west of Athens. Its population today is around 30,000. In the 19th century it had to be rebuilt because of an earthquake.
Paul was a well-educated Pharisee who converted to Christianity in a spectacular manner. He always opens his letter to a church with formal greetings and some kind words for believers.
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.
7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul knows how to pile on the praise as he addresses the believers in Corinth. Here are some of his descriptions of them:
Sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be his holy people, enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge, blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Once again we have a congregation that is praiseworthy.
What would you think if some high churchman sent those words to us?
Our final scripture passage from today’s lectionary is of course from a Gospel, in this case the first chapter of John’s Gospel. It is altogether different from the previous three passages. In the two Old Testament passages the writers were describing how faithfully they served under God’s leading and what wonderful things God did for them. The Apostle Paul offers quite a list of good things to report about the Corinthians as his letter begins.
In John’s Gospel the dialog is no longer with an unseen God or a letter-writing preacher from afar. Now the interaction is directly with Jesus at the start of his ministry. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus and then praises him to the skies, so that when two of his disciples hear him refer to Jesus as the Messiah, they leave John and walk over to follow Jesus, who seems to have personal magnetism. Andrew is one of the two; he goes home and tells his brother Simon that he has seen the Messiah, the leader Jews have been waiting for. Simon joins Andrew and they find Jesus, who gives Simon the new name by which we know him: Peter, which means “rock.” He must have made a solid first impression.
As a brief aside, it seems to me that the two disciples of John the Baptist were almost too quick to leave him and go to Jesus. The usual diet of John the Baptist was locusts and wild honey; if that were my diet I would be quite a grouch. Were they hoping for better company and a better diet in a new leader? Whatever the case, by associating with Jesus instead of John the Baptist they became disciples of the most important spiritual leader the world has ever known.
Now we have looked at passages from Isaiah, Psalms, 1 Corinthians, and John’s Gospel. Why discuss all of them on the same Sunday? It is because in every case the believers who invested heavily in the human-divine relationship in the Old Testament or the human-human relationship in the New Testament found themselves in a much better situation as a result. They served the Lord in one way or another, and we remember them to this day.
My argument is this: the experiences of the people in the scriptures that I have been talking about can be applied directly to Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Our typical attendance has been trimmed by Covid, and by the loss of a pastor. However, we are entering the spring season of the year when pastors or new seminary graduates look for congregations to serve. Our challenge is to commit ourselves to serve and love each other in Christian living in this congregation, and to be energized by the Holy
Spirit in doing so. In that way we become a congregation that a pastor will be eager to serve.
That is the path ahead.