Sermon Options: June 3, 2018

April 28th, 2018

Things Change

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

Here’s a fact about life: things change.

Now that is hardly a profound observation, but it is a significant shift in thinking that for many of us can only be gained by living a while.

Think back to when you were a child living with your parents. Whatever the circumstances of your home life, you likely had a sense that how things were in your family was more or less how things would always be there. It is a natural mark of immaturity to think that things won’t change. In high schools, for example, kids who are not in the cliques often believe they are destined to be outsiders forever. When romantic relationships break up, kids sometimes see that as portending a lifetime of unhappiness, with nothing ever changing or improving for them.

At the extreme end of that shortsighted outlook is the sad fact of teenage suicide, which has been described as a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” The difficulty is that the young person cannot see that whatever is troubling him or her at that moment is something that will pass. Fortunately, most young people don’t go to that extreme, but the assumption that things don’t really change is pretty pervasive.

That view, however, does not easily let go, and many of us carry it into adulthood. Back when I was in seminary in the early 1970s, there were a couple of students in one of my courses who were smokers, and it was not uncommon for them to light up in class. That was considered acceptable behavior in those days. Now we knew even then that smoking was unhealthy to the smoker, but we didn’t have much information about the damage to nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. What I knew, however, was that I didn’t like the smell of cigarette smoke wafting in the classroom, and I made a practice whenever possible to not sit near the smokers.

It happened during that semester that our campus newspaper invited comments and suggestions on class life, so I wrote a short letter to the editor suggesting that we institute a no-smoking practice in the classrooms. When other students saw my letter in the newspaper, I got a few comments that ranged from the implication that I was being a prude to the charge that I was being unrealistic because smoking in public was here to stay. I recall thinking, “Yeah, I guess that’s something that isn’t going to change.”

How wrong I was! Our willingness to tolerate others smoking around us has changed drastically today, even becoming the subject of laws in many communities. But back then, I couldn’t envision that it ever would change.

Life in the meantime, however, has persuaded me that few human inventions are permanent, and that things in fact do change.

To cite another example, how many of us in my age bracket ever thought that Communism would suddenly collapse? We were raised on air raid drills in our grade schools, and heard time and again about the “Red Menace.” We lived through the Cold War. Then, all at once, we learned that the Berlin Wall was coming down, the Soviet Union was breaking up, and the threat of Communist domination of the world was going away. Who would have thought that was possible, at least in our lifetime?

The view that things won’t change is the root of a lot of pessimism. If we are married to someone who has certain traits we don’t care for, we may conclude far too soon that “they will never change” and despair of having any happiness from the relationship.

Even things we know are going to change eventually sometimes feel like they won’t. Perhaps we are caring for a sick loved one, an older person who has little hope of recovery. No matter how much we love that person, being a caregiver can be exhausting, and when we are in the middle of it, the demands on us seem unending.

So we have difficulty imagining that some unwelcome experience will ever be wholly a thing of the past. As it happens, that very difficulty works against faith, for if there is one thing that the Christian faith asserts, it is that God will not let things remain as they are. Sin and evil will not be permitted to shape society forever. The kingdom of God coming in its fullness will change everything. But even before that, God alters attitudes and passions right now. There is a reason that accepting Christ is called “conversion”; to convert means “to change.”

This erroneous sense that things do not change is also in the background of today’s scripture reading. The incident takes place at the end of the period of the judges, when there was as yet no king over Israel. There really was no nation per se. Rather the Israelites lived in a lose confederation of tribes with no single leader. When enemies attacked or when decisions affecting them all needed to be made, leaders known as “judges” were called forth, but there was no institutionalized national leadership structure or formal way of selecting leaders. There was no office in which the authority to head all the tribes resided.

Unfortunately, the people adopted that same loose attitude toward their responsibilities to the covenant with God. The book of Judges, which describes that period, closes with these words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). That’s where things stood when 1 Samuel begins.

As a result on this free-for-all approach to religion, people weren’t hearing much from God — largely because they weren’t interested in listening for him. Our reading from chapter 3 opens by saying, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” In other words, for a long time, people had felt like they were on their own when it came to religion. The person on whom the practice of religion focused in those days was Eli, who was both a judge and the high priest. The temple in Jerusalem would not be built until several years later, so what worship there was took place in the portable tabernacle that had been created while the people of Israel were in the wilderness after leaving

Egypt generations earlier. At the time of our reading, that tabernacle was permanently set up in Shiloh. And there Eli lived, in a dwelling adjoining the tabernacle.

Samuel was a boy who had been dedicated by his mother to the service of God, and he was living in the tabernacle itself, likely carrying out cleaning and serving duties. You probably know the story of how during one night, God called Samuel’s name, and Samuel ran to Eli, thinking it was he who called. After this happened three times, Eli realized that it was God calling Samuel, and he instructed Samuel how to answer and then listen for God.

Now we read only the first half of this story today, but the balance of the chapter tells what God had to say once Samuel answered. God gave Samuel a very harsh message about Eli and his family. Although Eli himself had been faithful to God, his two sons, who were also priests, had abused their positions, taking sexual liberties with women serving in the tabernacle and demanding from those who came to offer sacrifices forbidden portions of the sacrificial animals for their own dining pleasure. Eli had not stopped them, and now, as Samuel learned from God, God was rejecting Eli and his sons, and they would be punished for their sins.

All of that came true, and as Samuel grew, God continued to speak to and through him. Eventually, Samuel became the new spiritual leader of the people.

The chapter opened by saying the Lord had been silent for a long while, but now through Samuel God opened communication with all the people. And the message Samuel heard that night was that things were about to change even more — and change dramatically. Eli was out; Samuel was in. Eli had forfeited the blessing of God; God’s blessing now fell on Samuel. God had been silent; he would be silent no more. Visions had not been widespread; well hang on to your seats, because they were going to be coming now! The old ways were over; God was breaking into their lives with a new beginning. Things were changing, and how!

You see, this is not only a story about how we should listen for God; it’s also a dramatic announcement of surprising change, and it tells us that one of the ways God works is through change.

There is a certain irony in saying that, for one of the testimonies about God in the Bible is that he does not change. For example, speaking through the prophet Malachi, God says, “For I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). One of the psalmists said:

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away; but you are the same, and your years have no end.

— Psalm 102:25-27

In the New Testament, this same characteristic is extended to Jesus. The author of the book of Hebrews, said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Theologians even have a word for this characteristic of God: immutability. It means “unchangeableness.”

We should recognize, however, that the fact of God’s immutability in no way hinders him from using change as a tool of his will.

This is hardly to say that every change is the will of God, but it is to say that God is above change and that changing things is one way God operates in the world. Several years ago I saw a banner in a church that displayed a large footprint, and across it were these words: “The sign of the God is that we are led where we did not intend to go.” That is a way of saying that God uses change to apply his will in our lives just as he did in the lives of Eli and Samuel.

The lesson for us then is that we should look at the changes that occur in our lives and ask if God might be working with us in them. And if we conclude that he is, then we should ask how we can cooperate with those changes.

We can predict a few of those changes — we will get older, our kids will grow up, some of the passions of our youth will burn out or become less important — but for the most part, many of the changes that occur in our lives will come as surprises. In each of those circumstances, we can ask how God might be working, and then listen for what God might want us to hear.

I started by saying that as children and youth, we often have the sense that things do not change. By the time we get to the other end of life, the opposite impression often rules. We have the sense that everything is changing. When the great mystery writer Agatha Christie reached 75, she wrote a book about her life. Speaking about her advancing age, she said: “I am enjoying myself. Though with every year that passes, something has to be crossed off the list of pleasures. Long walks are off, and, alas, bathing in the sea; fillet steaks and apples and raw blackberries (teeth difficulties) and reading fine print.”1 She went on to describe how much she still had left to enjoy, but we can see how she was noticing how much things were changing. Another aging person, Henry F. Lyte, expressed the sense of rapid alterations taking place in his life when he wrote the hymn, “Abide With Me.” In one verse he wrote, “change and decay in all around I see.” (But he went on to write, “O thou who changest not, abide with me.”)

In reality, some things do stay the same, or relatively so, for a long time, but eventually most things change in some way. God does not change but he often works through the changes in our lives. We have a perfect example of that in this story of Samuel. God took the initiative and broke the silence. The change God then instituted brought fresh opportunity for people to come back to the covenant, to walk in the ways of righteousness, and to hear God’s word for their own lives.

When change intrudes upon our lives, may we be as open to listen for God as was Samuel.

1. From Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography, quoted in The Reader’s Digest, October 1985, p. 97.

Parades And Crosses — The Challenge Of Ministry

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

He had grown up in a fashionable suburb of a large American city, a cosmopolitan area of considerable size and sophistication. He was a winner from the time he was born; you know, one of those babies that comes into the world with a smile and a confident air that life is friendly and meant for success. Oh, yes, he did his share of crying, and as an infant and pre-schooler, he had his share of sickness. But all in all, he was the kind of boy you would expect to see in a prize-winning television commercial.

In elementary school he was always liked by his teachers, although with his healthy, all boy personality, he steadfastly avoided giving any appearance of being a teacher’s pet. He knew the turbulence of the teenage years, but that didn’t stop him from excellence in that rare combination of athletics and academics.

In a way, he was the kind of son every parent dreams of. He was bright, but not conceited; handsome, but not stuck on himself; well-groomed, but not fastidious; polite, but not obsequious; well organized, but just easy and mischievous enough to make him the life of most any party. Although he was full of passion and a favorite of the girls, his upbringing and his Christian convictions kept his passion under control.

In fact, it was his Christian convictions that had his father a little bit worried. His father was a supporter of the church and had even served a term as a deacon. He attended regularly, spoke favorably of the church, and generally encouraged his son’s participation in church activities, although he freely acknowledged that it was the boy’s mother who was really the religious one in the family.

Although the son was a leader in school in every way, he was also active in church. He rarely missed youth meetings, sang in the choir, and even attended an early morning Bible study. One summer he went on a youth work camp to the Appalachians to help build a community center for the poor mountain folk, and one time the minister had asked him to preach the sermon on Youth Sunday. He received a lot of compliments. A lot of people told him he would make a good minister.

It was his senior year in high school and he was more active than ever as a leading athlete, president of his class, and as one of the best students academically. He scored very high on his S.A.T.s. And he kept active in church. The youth leaders asked him to lead some Bible studies for the middle school group. Once again, almost by popular demand, he was asked to preach on Youth Sunday. Once again, the compliments came rolling in. You should be a minister, said one of the dear saints of the church. An older gentleman, one of the patriarchs of the church, said he had a gift for preaching. Perhaps he ought to consider the ministry. The boy smiled and thanked him.


It all happened deep in January after the father had been on an extended, but very successful, business trip. The father had already been very successful, reaping a handsome income that provided a fine home and cottage, with skiing in Aspen and surfing in Hawaii. If shortages of cash flow was a preoccupation of some families in their neighborhood, such was not the case in this family. They were careful not to flout their wealth like the nouveau riche nor to live ostentatiously like the psychologically insecure, but neither were they secretive nor miserly. They had and enjoyed the good things of life.

Flying back from his trip, the father looked forward to sharing all the good news of his success with his family. In fact, he already was planning a family trip to celebrate the sizeable increase in income. But perhaps more than that, he was dreaming about his son. To be sure, he had his ups and downs with him like most fathers. But all in all, he was immensely proud of his boy as was almost everyone else. Now he was dreaming of the day when his son might come into the business with him and take it to even greater heights. Of course, first there would be college and hopefully a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, and it might be good experience for him to work for someone else for a while. But eventually, he dreamed of the day his son would join him in the business.

He knew his son had the ability to do almost anything with his high grades and positive, hard-working attitude. The son had spoken some of medicine and law. He had the rare ability to excel in both science and literature. The father contented himself with the thought the son might enter one of the professions. But beyond all that, he longed for the day the son would be a full-fledged partner with him in his successful business.

However, as I was saying, it all happened deep in January after the father returned from his extended and highly successful business trip. It was one of those rare evenings in upper-middle-class life when everyone planned to be home. The mother had prepared a wonderful, welcome-home dinner in the dining room with leisurely dessert scheduled for the living room beside the fireplace.

It was then, by the fireplace, that it happened. The family and father had enjoyed animated conversation throughout dinner, and now by the fire, everyone was on the third cup of coffee. There was a lull in the conversation, and the son spoke up and said, “Dad, I’ve got something to tell you.” “Yes?” “Well, Dad, I think I’ve finally decided what I want to do with my life.” “Oh, well, really? Sounds great! Let’s hear about it.” “Well, Dad, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I’ve about decided I’d like to study for the ministry.”

The son, who had been looking at the dancing flames was about to continue, when he glanced at his father to see a puzzled, bewildered, unbelieving, crestfallen countenance, rolled together in one frightening, unforgettable expression. The father, in turn seeing his son’s surprise and grimace, quickly regained his composure, looked into the fire, then at his wife, and then sipped long and hard on his coffee. There was a long and awkward silence.


“So,” said the father, regaining a bit of composure, “so, what makes you think you want to enter the ministry? I thought you were headed for law or medicine or better yet, for a business career with me. We could do extremely well together you know. You would start out light years ahead of where I was at your age.”

“I know, Dad. I have thought of medicine and law and being in business with you. It would be great fun to do that with you, but I am feeling more and more I should go into the ministry.”

“Well, son, those are noble ideas and the ministry is a high calling. But, really now, have you considered what kind of a life that would be? Ministers are about the lowest paid professionals in the country. They go through seven or eight or more years of higher education only to drive secondhand cars and live in a parsonage decorated by a committee.”

“Besides, I was reading in the paper the other day that the average minister in America makes only a modest amount a year, and that includes housing allowance and fringe benefits. Son, I make ten to twenty times that amount even in a bad year. Why would any intelligent, high achiever like you want to enter a profession that would pay you in later life what most lawyers start out with right out of law school? What kind of a future is that? How could you really enjoy the good things in life with that kind of income? How would you put your kids through college? How could you support a family anywhere near your accustomed lifestyle?”

“I know, Dad,” said the son. “The low pay of ministers does bother me. It seems to me that many churches do exploit their ministers. But I was talking with our minister about that and he showed me our annual report and pointed out that he was considerably better paid than the average.”

“Sure, son,” said the father, “but look where he is, in an exceptional church. And I have no doubt you would end up in a similar church, but I still make four or five times as much as our minister, easily, and so could you. No minister dares make much more than the average salary of his congregation, no matter how good he is. You remember the old trustees prayer which goes like this: ‘Lord, you arrange to keep our minister humble, and we’ll arrange to keep him poor.’ People are funny that way. For some reason they think money and ministry are incompatible. You’ll have no financial future in the ministry, my son.”

“I know, Dad. It seems strange to me that it is okay for lay Christians to make a lot of money, but not okay for Christian ministers. But, Dad, I’m really not going into the ministry for money. That’s obvious, I guess. Of course I would like to make a good living for my family, and I sure don’t want to take the vow of poverty, but my feeling for the ministry is deeper than that.”


His father asked for a fourth cup of coffee, and then ventured the obvious question. “You say you have deeper feeling for the ministry. What do you mean?”

The son was a bit encouraged. He had thought by this time his father might be in a complete rage. And even though he knew his father was suffering from deep disappointment, he was, nevertheless, earnestly trying to understand his son’s feelings for he knew the son thought things out pretty well before he made a decision.

“Well, Dad, I guess the feelings have grown on me gradually. But this past year when I was leading the Bible study with the middle school kids, something clicked inside me. I knew they admired me as an athlete and leader, but when I talked with them about Jesus and God and how they should commit their lives to them, they responded in a new way. I mean, it was like I touched a dimension of their lives nothing else and no one else could touch. You know I really love sports and get a great thrill out of winning and being popular. But when I talked with these kids, I seemed to be touching them in ways sports could not. It was like I was filling an emptiness or void in their lives. I was giving them a reason for life or a purpose they all could share, even if they couldn’t achieve in academics or sports. Some of those kids now come to talk with me about their problems and I seem to be able to help them. It really gives me a deep sense of satisfaction.”

“Well,” said his father, “you could do that as a youth sponsor while you were in business with me. You could be a deacon and teacher and all that and still not enter the professional ministry.”

“That’s true,” said the son as he shifted his weight and leaned forward in his chair. “But I had a similar feeling when our minister let me preach those two Youth Sundays. I felt good, almost natural up there. I felt as if people were really listening, really listening for a special kind of word they don’t hear anywhere else. Besides, I got a lot of compliments!”

“I understand, I think,” said the father. “You did do a fine job up there, and I was mighty proud of you, as always. But let me play the devil’s advocate for a minute. It’s only natural for people to compliment you and encourage you as a young man. But think how little esteem most people have for a sermon. No one wants to be preached to or to hear a sermon. And you know we have one of the better preachers around. When I was on the board of deacons, you should have heard the complaints if our minister preached beyond the hour. He was reminded again that the head can only absorb as much as the bottom can endure.

“Frankly, I don’t think most people, even church people, respect preaching much these days. If anything, they prefer a ten or twelve minute talk about how to get along a little better in life. If they miss getting ahead of the brunch line at the club, they suffer an acute attack of apoplexy!

“To tell you the truth, my son, even though I love the church and our minister, I just don’t think preaching and teaching in the church is where the action is. People look to professors and scientists, commentators, doctors, opinion-makers, and best-selling authors for their authority. They think religion is important, but a bit quaint and irrelevant, and a little bit off to the side of life. Preaching and worship and religious processions may seem a little glamorous, but I think the deeper truth is that people do not respect it in our day. And that’s a cross you would have to bear if you went into the ministry.”

The son sat back in his chair and thought a bit. He looked at his mother who, by the gentle expression and radiant glow in her eyes, encouraged him to go on. “The trouble is, Dad, I think you may be right. I know what a lot of my friends and their families think of the church and the ministry. Sometimes they exhibit a kind of subtle mockery. One of my buddies has a kind of odd minister. He says his dad calls him the third sex.

“Nevertheless, while you were away, I spent a lot of time talking with our minister. He agreed that the ministry was not at the center of life like it used to be. The minister once was one of the few educated people around, that no longer is the case. He no longer has that automatic authority either from education or position. Many people think the minister is unacquainted with the rough and tumble world and really cannot speak to it with authority.”

“Right,” said the father. “I think that’s the way it is. If you really want to influence society and change things, go into something else, maybe law and politics.”

“I raised that very question with our minister,” said the son. “He said we certainly do need good Christians in all vocations, but he reminded me that I needed to take a long look at history. The Bible and the church have been around a long time, he said, longer than any nation or political or economic system. He said there have been other times in history when preachers and preaching have been ignored, even ridiculed, persecuted, and killed. He mentioned William Tyndale and John Huss, who were burned at the stake. He pointed out the threat on Martin Luther’s life and the fact that Polycarp was burned at the stake. Then, of course, he mentioned the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself.

“In the long sweep of history, he said preaching has often been very difficult. And right now, it is out of fashion in Western culture. Fads and fashions come and go, but the gospel of Christ and the Bible and the church will remain forever. He said that, as a minister, I would be serving a higher calling whose reward might not be realized in this life, but that I would be enlisting people in the cause of Christ, nurturing them, helping them, praying for them, attempting to aid them to be good disciples of Christ. I guess that’s the deeper feeling I get when I teach those young kids and when I preach. I get the feeling I’m participating in something eternal and ageless, something that really satisfies and makes sense.

“Our minister said an old veteran minister once told him he should stay out of the ministry unless he just couldn’t help himself. I’m feeling more and more that way, that I would make a mistake if I stayed out. Our minister said that perhaps God was calling me into the ministry.

“He said many churches don’t take their share of responsibility for recruiting young people for the ministry. He said he knew of one large church that had, in its many years, recruited only one person for the ministry. He said they were really dependent on other churches who had taken their responsibility more seriously.

“I told him I hadn’t heard any voices or seen any visions. He said that didn’t matter, and that perhaps God was calling me through these experiences and people. I hope you won’t be angry at me, Dad, but I guess that is how I’m feeling.”


Well, what is a father to do? This one thought deeply as he sipped his coffee. Despite his personal heartache, he had a deepening respect for his son whom he loved and admired so much. He realized as he spoke that his own deep feelings about the church and the ministry were being exposed. Yet, he felt he owed it to himself and to his son to express his honest objections.

“Well, son, I have to admire your convictions. But I still have lots of questions and hesitations. I remember one lady on our deacon board who said she wouldn’t want to be a minister because of all the problem people in the church, and I chuckled to myself, because if ever our minister had a problem, she was it.”

“I know. I talked about that with our minister, too. He was very open. He said, sure, there are problem people in the church. But he said for every problem person there are ten absolutely wonderful people, so devoted, so committed, so involved, and self-giving that it makes everything worthwhile. Church people often sense they are a part of a grand scheme, participants in something lasting and eternal. Our minister said he felt highly honored and privileged to lead people in such a high calling. Besides, he said it was his privilege to minister to people in times of celebration like baptisms, confirmations, and weddings, and to minister to them in times of trouble and sorrow, sometimes all in the same day. He said he loved being able to help people like that.”

“But doesn’t it seem a waste of brains and talent to use it in the ministry?” his father blurted out in desperation, not really thinking.

The son smiled, “Did you hear what you just said, Dad? Did you hear what you just said about Christ and the Bible and the church?” The father blushed with the knowledge of the truth about his real feelings.

The son went on. “Our minister said that Jesus’ own family thought he was crazy when he left the family business to go into the public ministry. They once came to get him to take him home. Perhaps they were afraid of what might happen to him. There can be a lot of glamour and prestige and excitement in ministry. There are speeches and crowds, processions and parades. But, said our minister, there are crosses too, sometimes several crosses. That’s how it was with Jesus on Palm Sunday — all trumpets and shouts and fanfares, and then there was Good Friday.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of son, Good Friday. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“So am I, Dad. But then, there’s always Easter. Isn’t there?”

Lord Of The Sabbath

Mark 2:23—3:6

The Gospel Reading shows Jesus in a position of conflict with the religious leaders of his day, a position we find him in repeatedly. This time it is over the observance of the sabbath. This is a story we need to hear, not only to understand the life of Jesus, but to apply it to ourselves as religious folks. In Jesus’ critical encounters with the Pharisees or scribes or the Jews, we must avoid the temptation to look down on them by placing ourselves above them. The faults of the religious people of Jesus’ day are repeated often in the history of the church and in our day, as well. The warning of Jesus not to be concerned about the speck in someone else’s eye when we have a log in ours is particularly appropriate here.

The problem that is addressed is greater than the issue about sabbath observance. It goes to a basic understanding of God’s instructions to the people. Although the word torah, which refers in general to all God’s instructions and particularly to the first five books of the Bible, is often translated as “law,” it is not law in the strict legal sense we use in everyday life. It is more the sense of instruction or guidance. The Torah, the law, the instructions of God, are given for our good. In the long discourse of Moses in sharing with them the law of God, he tells them that it is given “for your own well-being.”

The instructions of God are not given on a whim. God does not simply make up a set of rules to see if people will follow them. This is the loving guidance of a caring, personal God. This is a loving parent sharing with beloved children the wisdom they need to live full and joyful lives. This is not a set of regulations that

God has established in order to have an excuse for exiling us from God’s presence and it certainly is not a means of excluding others from the love and grace of God which is what was happening in Jesus’ day.

We do not have to assign terrible motives to the religious folks who Jesus was dealing with at the time. For the most part we can assume they were doing the best they could to try to follow the way God had laid out for them. They were occupied by Rome and their religious freedom, although not completely taken away, was very restricted. Although they did not offer allegiance to Caesar as a god, they were forced to pay him tribute in the form of money or crops. Many of their customs and ways of life were put on hold during the occupation. The laws that could be followed, therefore, became more important to them. This would not have been so much a problem if they had not taken the next step. It began to be a situation of those who had the means and were able to follow the laws of the temple and the laws of Rome seeing those who could not do so, as being unfaithful. Those who could afford to pay the tithe to the temple along with the Roman taxes thought themselves more holy than those who were forced to pay the Roman tax under pain of death only to find they had not even enough left to feed themselves and their families. Instead of looking on these people as oppressed and abused, they were seen as sinners.

Into this scenario stepped Jesus with the message that God was not understood as fully in terms of being a demanding judge as in being a compassionate Father. It is not obedience to the law that lies at the heart of the matter but rather being faithful reflections of the God who created us in the divine image. God is best understood not in terms of the stern taskmaster who demands obedience above all, but as the wise teacher who lovingly shows us the way to live.

It is not that Jesus abandoned the law. He directly denied that in both his living and his teaching. He observed the law when it brought glory to God and did not interfere with his sharing of the good news of God’s grace. He went to temple and to the synagogue, he observed the holy days and he read and studied the scriptures. He declared that he had not come to destroy the law but to bring it to its full completion. He also understood that the law was given for our well-being and we were not created to give glory to the law. He understood that while the law was created to point us to God it could, sometimes, get in the way. When the woman who had been suffering for eighteen years came into Jesus’ life on a sabbath day, he understood the true nature of God was to have compassion on her in her affliction and not to honor the sabbath. He did not teach people to ignore the sabbath but rather to receive it as a gift rather than a burden. It is part of God’s compassionate gift of inviting us to rest in trust that God will take care of us rather than a cold, unbending law about what we can or cannot do.

People are often uncomfortable with this type of freedom, yet it is what God offers us. Paul talks about it as the freedom we have in Christ. We are not bound to the law, because in Jesus we understand that the law was made for us and not we for the law. The law is our servant in teaching us about God and how we can live with God, ourselves, and one another in peace and harmony. It teaches about who God is and how we can relate to our Creator-God who is also our loving, eternal parent. It is not a burden but a joy. It is not a curse but a wondrous gift from God so that we might know we are loved and cared for as we walk this earth.

It was a difficult lesson for the religious folk of Jesus’ time to accept and it is often difficult for us to grasp. It makes things so much easier if we just have the rules to follow so that we know we are okay. Rules give us a yardstick by which we can measure our lives and then feel good about ourselves. When we have failed to live up to its expectations we can at least look around at others who are not doing as well as we are and especially at those who do not even try. The problem is that it gives us comfort in the wrong place. It gives us confidence in our own good works instead of in the grace and love of our God.

This is what we mean by living by faith. It is not our good works or our good beliefs that make us loved by God. It is God’s love that makes us loveable. We trust in the compassion of a God who loves us and cares for us and guides us in life. We trust that we are loved by God and respond to the directions we are given because we know that they are for our well-being. We trust God’s grace and love enough to walk away from the strict keeping of the law when keeping the letter of the law means withholding compassion from one of God’s children.

Most of us have abandoned keeping a day set apart for leisure, worship, and recreation. We have done so to our own peril. God knows that we must slow down and rest and, more importantly, we must give up the pretense that the world revolves around us and on what we do rather than on the gracious presence of God. We have missed the mark by using freedom in Christ to abandon the good counsel of God rather than to give us the freedom to follow God more closely. Every day, we pay the price in poor health and tense relationships. Each week, we break the heart of God who sees us needlessly adding to the stress and burden of life rather than enjoying it as a gracious gift.

There are few of us who would refuse to cook or buy a meal on Sunday for a starving child because it would desecrate the sabbath and yet every day the love and grace of God is denied to others because they do not meet up to the expectations we have for them. We take the caring instructions of God and turn them into hurdles for people to jump in order to get to God instead of being clear paths to lead them to God. We take upon ourselves the work of enforcing God’s Law instead of sharing the love and compassion of God with others so that they, too, can find in God’s good instructions a way that leads to a full, joy-filled life.

This is not a call to go back to slavishly refraining from all activity one day a week. Nor is it a call to abandon the law as old-fashioned and irrelevant. It is certainly not a call to invite the state to impose God’s instructions as legal prohibitions. It is rather a call to hear, with Jesus, the loving voice of a caring parent instructing us in the wisdom of life. It is a call to hear, with Jesus, the invitation not to use God’s gracious instructions as a tool to bar others from the presence of God. It is an invitation to receive joyously the instruction of God as it was meant to be, for our well-being.

From Sermons on the First, Second and Gospel Readings; Copyright © CSS Publishing

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