Sermons That Work

The Prophetic Voice, Proper 9 (B) – 1997

July 06, 1997

Here it is Fourth of July weekend and our texts have us reflecting on what it is like to be God’s prophetic voice in the midst of our community and our culture.

And the word to Ezekiel, from Paul and the experience of Jesus, all assert that it “ain’t easy.” Being God’s own spokesperson does not come with the expected spotlight and glory. At least not the type of glory we are accustomed to shine on the icons of our popular culture: athletes, entertainers and the like.

God says to Zeke, “There will be mighty resistance from the people! My people!”

Paul goes further in discovering that the resistance is both within ourselves as well as outside of ourselves.

And as astonishingly good as Jesus’ sermon appears to be, in the end the majority opinion is that he is out of his element and has no business doing the things he does and saying the things he says around these parts.

Now what Jesus says, we know from the opening verses of Mark’s gospel, is that God’s reign is already breaking in. Which would appear to be good news. Except for the fact that the prophetic tradition of some several hundred years earlier had alerted people to the fact that the Day of the Lord would come, and that when that day comes people ought to be about doing the Lord’s work and if you are not found doing the Lord’s work things will not go so well for you.

It’s just that people had come to think that there would be time later in life to do God’s work, that right now is the time to be what you can be and do what you want to do and fill a few barns full of stuff for that time down the road when for whatever reason you may not be so productive. Now is the time for endless productivity; later there will be time enough for God work.

Now is the time for the pursuit of happiness. There will be plenty of time later for “God stuff.”

Then there is what Jesus is doing. He has gone home to the region around the Sea of Galilee to be an entrepreneur: he sets up a health clinic. He offers some alternative medicine. And even on a bad day, people are healed.

The text says, due to the people’s disbelief, he could do no mighty work there, EXCEPT that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.

Reminds me of Michael in game five in Utah with the flu. He looked awful, could barely move up and down the court, had no lift in his legs, no arc on his shot, no fire in his eyes, and all he could do was score a superhuman 38 points and sink the game-winning three-pointer with less than a minute to go!

Oh, to have such bad days as Jesus and Michael Jordan!

Now the problem for Jesus is not mentioned in the text. The big town on the sea is Tiberias, and the big money maker for Tiberias for hundreds of years before the time of Jesus were these hot springs. People came to be healed. They paid money to soak in these waters and be healed. They still do. It is a major tourist and health service destination spot, and anchors the town economy. So along comes this carpenter-turned-teacher healing people for nothing with nothing more than the grace and power of God.

It is no wonder the text says that they took offense at him.

We can look back and say, “Wow, that sure took chutzpa to begin a healing ministry in and around Tiberias.” But they were saying, “How can we get rid of this guy; this is definitely bad for business.” We can imagine that the local Chamber of Commerce was not pleased.

And we know that he faced everything Paul lists: weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. And worse.

Now his words and actions were as if we, on this Fourth of July weekend, were to set out to demonstrate for great crowds of people just how the Declaration of Independence, as marvelous an adventure as it was for its time, holds the seeds of its own destruction with its attenuated definition of human nature and it inadequate vision of human destiny.

As two seminal Christian thinkers, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have put it, “What we are left with from the Declaration of Independence is not self-freedom, but self- centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism. Free is not how many of our citizens feel – with our overstocked medicine cabinets, burglar alarms, vast ghettos, and drug culture. Eighteen hundred New Yorkers are murdered every year by their fellow citizens in a city whose police department is larger than the standing army of many nations. The adventure went sour….our culture has perverted liberation to mean freedom from the demands of others in order to follow the demands of self….the suffocating tyranny of American individualism in which each of us is made into his or her own tyrant.” (Resident Aliens, pp 50, 153, 164)

In fact, I once did something a lot less confrontational than this. At a Fourth of July celebration for Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, I shared the stage with Clement Stone, that power of positive thinking millionaire insurance guru and bankroll for the Nixon White House. I was asked to pray, and combined the Fourth of July prayer with the Prayer For Young Persons on p. 829 in the Prayer Book, reads in part: “…Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start.”

Afterwards, I was set upon by the disciples of Clement Stone berating me for making failure sound okay rather than extolling the virtues of absolute success.

The fact is, whether it is Ezekiel, Paul, Jesus, or us, when God wants to use our voice, it will almost always be to confront some aspect of the dominant culture.

So today, if we are to follow Jesus with any sort of faithfulness, we will recognize the failures of the liberalism of the Enlightenment for what they are, and put our trust in the ways of God.

Which will result in someone, or great crowds of individuals, feeling insulted, or that the world they have come to depend on is under attack.

But that, of course, is the whole point of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ Good News is that this world is under attack, and the reign of God is at hand.

Just put your hand at arms length in front of your face for a moment. There. That is how close the reign of God really is.

And what Jesus is issuing is a clarion cry: “There will be no time later in life to get back to God’s work. The Day of the Lord is this close. What are you doing? What will God find you doing?”

To which we say, as Zeke and Paul and Jesus must have said over and over again, “It is just too hard! And people do not like us challenging the status quo! l can’t do it!”

And then we are to remember this story before us. Even Jesus had days when he could do no mighty work. But still, people were healed. But still, lives were changed. But still, people found themselves transformed and made new!

The suggestion here, of course, is that even on our worst days, we can accomplish mighty and wonderful things for God. Even on our worst days, we can be as effective as Michael Jordan. I mean, I love that television ad: I’ve lost over 300 games, I have been asked to take the game winning shot 26 times and missed; every time I fail I get better.

One word from us, one small gesture, and lives are changed and made new.

Just imagine what we can do on our good days.

Just imagine what God can do with us on our good days!

There is a greater life than Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

And that greater life is in God: in proclaiming God’s word and doing the work God calls us to do in Christ Jesus.

When we are called to be God’s prophetic voice over and against even the most precious of our cultural traditions, we need not fear reprisal. Our God is with us. Our God will prevail.

We are those people called to hear and to speak God’s prophetic voice over and against a culture that produces endless anxiety and the tyranny of the self.

Yes, our forefathers and mothers began a glorious adventure one Fourth of July not so very long ago.

“Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus will glorify your holy name. Amen.” (BCP p. 839)

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Christopher Sikkema


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