Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Convinced to Believe

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Luke 16:19-31
September 29, 2013
© 2013

I have had the privilege of getting to know Allan Eubank, a Disciples of Christ minister who has served as a missionary in Thailand since 1960. His book God, Are You Really God? tells the stories of Thai people who have trusted Jesus when challenged to ask God to address their lives’ trials. Allan’s evangelistic technique in a predominantly Buddhist culture takes a page from Psalm 34:8. “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” What would you say has or would convince you to trust Jesus and become his disciple?
Logical or empirical evidence or arguments from philosophy or science?
Mystical or miraculous experiences, either your own or for someone you knew or read about?
A relationship with a person of faith whose relationship with Jesus was authentic and compelling?
When the outlook seems bleak, listening to the Word of God convinces us to trust God has good in store for us. We read how Jeremiah heard the word of the Lord that he was to buy a field from Hanamel (vv. 6-7), and when Hanamel came to Jeremiah in prison and asked to sell him the field, Jeremiah knew it was the word of the Lord (v. 8).
This sale of land was according to the laws in Leviticus 25. In verse 23 God said, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” Real estate was not thought of as private property at the owner’s disposal but as belonging to God and held in trust for the community and future generations. As Hanamel’s cousin, Jeremiah had not only the right but the responsibility to buy it to keep it in the family. What is 1st Christian Church’s legacy held in trust for future generations of those who will follow Jesus?
Judah was under siege by the Babylonians when Jeremiah bought the field. It was a sign that as bleak as their situation seemed, they could hope in God who had a future for them. What signs of hope do you think God is giving 1st Christian Church for a fruitful future?
The field that Jeremiah bought had already been occupied by the Babylonians. Buying it was not a wise fiscal investment, but it was a powerful act of faith. What act of faith can you take to express your confidence in God’s hope for the future of 1st Christian Church?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is familiar but unique in all the Gospels. It is Jesus’ only parable with a named character. Lazarus means “God helps.” Since Luke did not introduce it as a parable, some have wondered if the rich man and Lazarus were real people who had recently died that his audience would have recognized. Yet, the story is clearly a parable and not a history or a theological exposition.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’
25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
With exquisite literary eloquence Jesus told God’s reversal. Poor Lazarus was personalized with the dignity of being named while the self-important rich man remained anonymous. Lazarus was escorted by angels to Abraham, but the rich man was simply buried. As an indigent, Lazarus’ body would have been tossed into the burning garbage dump that had become the popular image of Hades, while the rich man had the honor of a burial. But Lazarus was comforted with Abraham, and the rich man found himself in Hades. In his luxurious life, the rich man ignored Lazarus’ agony, but begged for Lazarus to relive his agony with a drop of water.
To take this as teaching about details of what happens when people die in isolation from the rest of Scripture will miss the “ah-ha” insight Jesus was conveying. Invisible people are important to God. If we are in harmony with God, we will empathize with them and do what we can to relieve their suffering.
Jesus’ secondary insight is that people are not convinced by persuasive arguments or spectacular experiences. Whether Jesus pointed to his own resurrection in verse 31, that’s how the early church understood it. His opponents covered up evidence he had risen. While they may encourage believers, I’m skeptical that unbelievers are convinced by reading about someone’s vision of heaven after a back from death experience. When the outlook seems bleak, listening to Scripture convinces us to trust God has good in store for us.
John Stendahl, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons, Newton, MA, was “visiting a young man in a facility for people with severe brain injuries. He was agitated and eager to walk, so I joined him as he went from room to room as if he were searching for someone. Eventually we came to a big room that was not in use. At the far end a couple of janitors were at work buffing the floor. I saw that no one was sitting at any of the tables and said to the young man, ‘There’s nobody in here.’ Then, from the other side of the room, came the voice of one of the janitors. ‘What do you mean, nobody? We’re not nobody.’” Christian Century, September 18, 2013, p. 21.
Listening to Scripture opens our spiritual eyes to see invisible people as full humans, loved by God, valuable enough for Jesus to redeem. Listening to Scripture gives us God’s perspective on unchurched and dechurched people, people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic positions from homeless to executive, all generations. Rather than a nuisance or annoyance, God puts invisible people in our paths for us to see opportunities to give and receive love.
Jesus told the rich man his brothers should listen to Moses and the Prophets, which was shorthand for the Scripture they had. We also have the Gospels and Epistles. They would not have had printed copies but would have to go to synagogue to hear them read aloud. By listening to Scripture in community, we join the conversation God has been having with people for generations. In our post-print world we tend to think in terms of cookbooks and shop manuals, textbooks and self-help books. Listening to Scripture is much more than information to agree with; it changes our perspective and shapes our character.
Invisible people are all around us. They may not all be in physical agony as Lazarus was. Some are as hollow as the rich man was. Many are spiritually hungry and unaware of the nourishment available by listening to Moses and the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles. Evangelism is not trying to convince people to believe the right facts about Jesus but to be met by him as Scripture overflows from us so they can listen.

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