Sermon Options: February 9, 2020

January 1st, 2020

A NEW CALL TO WORSHIP

ISAIAH 58:1-9a (9b-12)

The setting for this prophetic oracle is probably postexilic Jerusalem or Judah. The community has been restored to home, and yet apparently has not learned from its experience of exile about the importance of just living, of sharing wealth with poor people, of making deeds of mercy the centerpiece of the service of God.

The fast, which is the only ritual act mentioned here, normally suggests sorrow or mourning. Perhaps the people were still pining for the restoration of their former, preexilic lives, for a lifestyle of harmony that had not yet become manifest since their return home. To that ritual petition for a restored way of life, God answers with very specific guidelines for bringing it about.

I. A Call to Worship
Verse 1 could come straight out of a Sunday bulletin. The trumpet, or ram's horn, was customarily used to call the community to worship. In this instance, the prophet may be setting up a poetic device in which two kinds of serving—ritual service and works of mercy—are juxtaposed. If that is what is intended by this "call to worship," then the point is surely not to put down worship (see v. 13) but to lift up the other way in which God is served—through deeds of mercy and justice. The basic charge is laid out in plain view: the people are seeking to draw near to God without practicing holy living with one another.

II. A Call from Self-centeredness
The prophet gives us a glimpse here (vv. 3-4) of some of the specific behaviors manifested by the hearers. In four lines we find four charges against the people that cover a range from personal to corporate: (1) you serve your own interests, (2) you oppress your workers, (3) you quarrel and fight, and (4) you strike one another. We cannot say for certain how closely descriptive this is, but we clearly have the idea that people are worshiping one way and living another.

III. A Call to Righteousness
Then the people bring the word of Yahweh in the form of a question: "Is such the fast that I choose?" (v. 5). Hardly is the question completed before a literal flood of responses pours forth. From verse 6 to the end of the chapter, one after another of the behaviors called for by Yahweh is enumerated. Initially, they are put in terms of the figurative "fast" that God chooses for the people to observe—that is, the fast is to end injustice, to share bread with the hungry, to clothe the naked, and so on. By verse 9b, the moral directives have become simply statements of action and consequence: "If you remove the yoke, offer your food, satisfy the afflicted, ... then your light shall rise, God will guide you, your needs will be satisfied, your ancient ruins will be rebuilt...."

By the chapter's end, no less than eighteen promises have been made to the people who will choose to fast in God's way—that is, by doing justice and showing mercy in every area of their lives and their community. Fred Pratt Green's hymn, "When the Church of Jesus," warns of hearts lifted in worship "high above this hungry, suffering world of ours." His cautionary words echo those of Isaiah: going to God in prayer to work out what is wrong in the world is meaningless, even offensive, unless matched by intentional deeds that work toward making reconciliation happen. (Paul R. Escamilla)

THE MODUS OPERANDI OF EVANGELISM

1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-12 (13-16)

In a church's worship center a cross was prominently displayed behind the pulpit and choir loft. One Sunday when the pastor was on vacation a man, who was much taller than the pastor, preached the sermon. After the service a little boy who usually sat near the front with his family mentioned to his father that he liked their pastor a lot more than the visiting preacher. "Why?" his father asked. "Because he's small enough for me to see the cross."

The child said more than he knew. In order for Jesus to be visible in us, the self-life must be invisible. In order for him to increase, we must decrease ( John 3:30) . No one can impress people with fleshly, or natural, ability and at the same moment present Jesus as the mighty to save. In the second chapter of his letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul wrote of his practice of remaining small so that Christ would loom large.

I. We Proclaim Christ
Paul commented on the style, content, and purpose of his preaching. His style was intentionally devoid of "lofty words" (v. 1) and "plausible words of wisdom" (v. 4), but included the elements of "weakness," "fear," and "much trembling" (v. 3). Every person who has stood before a crowd to speak knows what Paul is talking about, but professors don't teach this style of delivery in seminary. Apparently, Paul did not mind appearing nervous; it probably accentuated the importance of his message ("this makes me so nervous that I wouldn't be doing it at all if it were not so important"). It was not the beauty of presentation that made his message so powerful; it was the depth of his conviction.

As to the content of his message, he preached the Cross (v. 2). Paul had come to Corinth from Athens where he had tried to meet the philosophers on their own ground. Perhaps his limited success there convinced him to keep his content simple and straightforward.

When a student athlete made four F 's and one D on his report card, his advisor asked the coach what his problem was. The coach said, "Well, it looks as if he's been concentrating too much on one subject." The same accusation could have been made about Paul, and that one subject was Jesus. He exalted Jesus so that the faith of the people "might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God" (v. 5).

II. We Demonstrate the Spirit's Power
Paul's life and ministry were living examples of what the Holy Spirit could do (v. 5) in and through the life of a human being. People need a demonstration of the Spirit even more than they need an explanation. They need to see the transformation that he has made and is continuing to make in us.

III. We Receive the Revelation of God
God's wisdom is a mystery to those who do not know God (vv. 6-9, 14). But to the saints, it is a mystery that has been revealed (vv. 10-16). Agnostics claim that God is beyond our ability to know or understand. Christians agree, but we add the important qualification that God has revealed himself. Paul argued that no one can know God except the Spirit of God, but it is God's Spirit that we have received! Since God's Spirit is in us, we "may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God" (v. 12). In fact, that is the beginning point of being a Christian.

Paul made his points in logical order, but they should be reversed to be in chronological order. First comes revelation, then demonstration, and last proclamation. (N. Allen Moseley)

BETTER THAN THE BEST

MATTHEW 5:13-20

Fred Craddock reminds us of the New York City bus driver who, after sixteen years of the same old route with the same people in the same old bus, on a certain day climbed into the bus and drove to Miami! Who hasn't felt that way? Who hasn't been there? Who hasn't wanted to say, "Let's throw out everything and start all over"?

There were those in the audience to whom Matthew's Gospel was written who wanted to do away with the old way: "The old rules don't work anymore. Let's throw them out and start all over with you, Jesus!" Even Jesus had been accused of laxity in keeping the Sabbath and dietary and fasting laws. Here Jesus corrects that mistaken notion: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (vv. 17-18).

I. Faith Builds on the Past
Jesus is saying that we are the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Ruth, and John the Baptist. We must carry on in the biblical tradition of the continuing story of God's revelation. Where God's story connects and intersects with our story, there God speaks. We must build on the past. Of course, every generation must construct new structures and forms for ministry and worship. But these new structures must be built with the old stones, as did Nehemiah. In seeking to address a new generation, we cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. In seeking to answer this claim that the old rules don't make it, Jesus—the new Moses—gives us a basic key to the understanding of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus is concerned about preserving the best of the past. And as we shall see, he is concerned about living in the present with moral and ethical integrity.

II. Faith Demands Obedience
When there are those who say that the old rules don't work anymore, there are those who will say that there are no rules. To this, Jesus says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). The Pharisees were the best of their day in trying to keep the Law. Jesus says that his children must be better than the best of this world.

There were those then and there are those today who say it doesn't matter what you do. Go ahead and cut the deal even if it hurts or destroys someone. To get ahead, you have to look out for number one. Allan Bloom, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, states that most college freshmen believe that values are relative and that there is no absolute truth. When there are no rules, selfishness reigns.

Jesus says it does matter what you do, because it determines what you are. It is not enough to compare yourself to the worst as if God graded on the curve. As one of God's children, you must be better than the best. That is why it is not enough to refrain from murder, adultery, and lying and to love only your friends. You must refrain from the underlying causes of these destructive actions and replace them with the positive actions of love.

III. Faith Provides a Witness to the World
We are salt and light (vv. 13-15). We are to be God's preserving, penetrating, purifying, and illuminating force in society. We will be so only as we are better than the best of this world. We must follow the example of the One who walked in the way of the Father (5:48). (Gary L. Carver)

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