October 28, 2001
Proper 25
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14

The Underlined / Linked Text above will take you to
a Sermon on the gospel reading


The Gift of God's Presence
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 9-14

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have good relationships with our fathers never forget what it is like to be with him. As a young lad, I never tired of being with my dad and it was a special treat when he would take me with him to work. I don't think he ever missed one of my hockey games when he was in town and it was a thrill to have him in the bleachers at my softball games. When I managed a hit, he was the loudest fan in the stands. And when I struck out, he would shout, "God swing kid! Good swing! You'll kill it next time!"

Now dad is gone and his voice has been silent for more than 17 years. I can't think of anything I would not willingly give up to hear him shout just one more time. I doubt that there will ever be a time when I will not miss my father.

But, we need to be aware that many have not had relationship like that with their earthly father. The sense that brings a twinge of pain is not missing a father, but having missed out on having a father. For other people it could be a mother that is sorely missed. Either way, it is difficult to arrive at the time when our parents are no longer present with us.

It can make us feel alone and lonely when we first experience life on this earth without the parents who saw us through all the good times and tough times -- the special people who kissed our hurts to make them better, rocked us to sleep when we were ill and cheered us on when we were doing our best. 

***

There is, however, a Presence that can give us encouragement for living and courage to stand in the face of difficulty and a Presence that will never be taken away from us and from which we will never be taken away. No matter how tough things might ever become, or how many people might ever abandon us, or how alone we might ever feel - this Presence can not fail.

It is the Presence the apostle spoke of in our epistle reading for today. Paul had been imprisoned and called before governors to give an account of charges that were made against him. Now that he has rounded third and is on the home stretch of his life's journey, he remarks that the conclusion of his time on this earth is on the near horizon. He writes,

"At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!  But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength..." [16-17]

Though human beings may disappoint us, God never will. Yet, disappointment is such a large part of human experience that God's people from one end of scripture to the other have always had to be reminded of the faithfulness of God.

When Moses spoke to the People of Israel just before they entered the promised land, he said to them, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." [Deut. 31:6 NIV]

Then he summoned Joshua and said, "The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged." [Deut. 31:8 NIV]

You may recall that Joshua was in the most precarious position. He was about to become successor to the greatest leader in the history of the People of Israel. This was no small thing.  He had enormous shoes to fill!

When Moses told Joshua that God would always be with him, it was probably very easy to believe. When Moses spoke, it was as though God was speaking. It was so easy to feel the confidence when the man who faced down the power of Pharaoh put his hand on your shoulder and assured you that God was in your corner and on your case! But then reality sets in. Moses died and Joshua was in fact the one who would lead Israel into the Promised Land.

Can you relate to Joshua?

It is one thing to face a difficult test when your mom and dad are there to reassure you and encourage you. "You can do it! Keep the faith! Do your best, that's all it takes."  Then the trial comes and you are on your own. It's just you and the trial and suddenly you don't feel quite as secure as you did when that loving parental voice was right beside you.

Now Father Moses is gone and it is Joshua and the Promised Land that had to be taken by force. You can only imagine what a long hard night it must have been after Moses had died and Joshua looked over the vast assembly that had become the infant nation of Israel. They looked to him with hope in their hearts and perhaps some bit of trepidation in their eyes.

Joshua puts on a secure and strong countenance -- and is probably shaking in his boots.

And the most wonderful things happens!

Take note here, because this tells you so much about the God we worship and serve. God knows when we are most in need of encouragement. If we are quiet enough, searching enough, and listening enough,  -- we might just hear the same assurance for our difficult times as Joshua heard. God knew that Joshua needed a foundation of his own. Moses was gone and Joshua, although being strengthened by the affirmations of Moses, was now in need of the Presence that brings courage and peace.

It's beautiful - listen:

"After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' aide: "Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them--to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates--all the Hittite country--to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. "Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them." [Joshua 1:1-6]

***

What an amazing and powerful thing it is to know the gift of God's presence. People have found strength to deal with the most difficult circumstances because they knew that God was close by. Even in times when life is nearing its end, it is the promise of God's presence that brings hope and comfort.

In our reading, the apostle writes, "...the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."  Yet, he is unwavering in his sense that God is present with him. "The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom."

This certain faith calls to mind the old gospel song, "Nearer my God to Thee," by Sarah F. Adams. The strong affirmation of the song is that even death brings the faithful person only nearer to God. The story is told of the death of American president William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. Dr. Mann, the attending physician, reported that among McKinley’s last words were “‘Nearer, my God, to Thee, e‘en though it be a cross,’ has been my constant prayer.”

On the afternoon of September 3, 1901, after five minutes of silence across the nation, bands in Union and Madison Squares in New York City played the hymn in memory of the fallen president. It was also played at a memorial service for him in Westminster Abbey, London. ¹

***

There is no way that you and I will escape the trials of living and it is certain that we will all come to those times when people whose presence we counted on will no longer be available to us.

But there is very good news about the God who never left or forsook Moses and who stood by Joshua almost three millennia ago. This same God who promised a continuing and never ending presence with Moses, Joshua and the Apostle Paul, is also the Presence that is available to you and to me.

When Jesus told his disciples he was going to be arrested, convicted and executed, they were obviously distressed. They had counted on his presence with them in good times and in terrible times. Now he was going to be taken away from them.

How would they ever make it? They had left family, home and friends to follow him, and embrace his vision of a new kingdom. Now they are instructed to take charge and continue his work and build his kingdom.

How?

This is not something ordinary mortals can do.

These are the words that were driven into the core of their souls on the last evening he spent with them in his earthly form. Jesus made a promise that would become the heart of their strength and hope in the future as they faithfully carried his "Good News" to a waiting world. "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." 
[John 14:18]

Jesus promised that he would ask God to send the Holy Spirit to become for the disciples everything he was for them when he was with them in the flesh. That promise is extended to every person who embraces Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The promise of God to us is that we are never left alone. The gift of God's presence is the same for you and me as it was for Joshua so many years ago.

"I will never leave you nor forsake you!"

 


¹  You can hear the hymn, get the words and read the stories associated with it
here >>> cyberhymnal


Reflection on the Texts

 

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

The Jeremiah text is a dialogue between God, the people of God and the prophet Jeremiah who pleads the case of the people. There will be no cheap grace for the people of Israel. Their persistence in walking away from God and the teaching of the law. The verses which have been dropped in the text (verses 11-18) tell the story of a rebellion so deep and profound that God says the sin has brought about an insurmountable barrier... The LORD said to me: Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry, and although they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I do not accept them; but by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them." [vv.11-12]

The spiritual leaders of Israel - the prophets who were to speak on God's behalf in a corrupt time - failed at their task and gave the people a sugar-coated, feel-good, version of God's word instead of the truth. This failure of those who should have been Israel's voice for God opens the door for a plea from the people. The plea is two pronged:  [1] The people say they are truly sorry for their wickedness and that of their forebearers,  [2] If God saves Israel in the midst of a pagan world then God's  reputation for greatness and graciousness will be preserved.

The last verse of the text is a prayer for all times, "We set our hope on thee, for thou doest all these things."  That is to say - "Only God is God!"


 

Luke 18: 9-14

The parable in this gospel lesson makes an incredibly strong statement about the danger of spiritual pride. It is easy to get the point when we imagine the scene Jesus describes. It might be more difficult - even devastating - to imagine the story as happening today between a good "church person" and a nonchurched "social reject." With a bit of imagination, and much effort, we might use the parable to examine our own vulnerability to spiritual "self-congratulation."

[Notes from Last Cycle]

¹ "Hubris" fr. Gk. "hybris" An exaggerated sense of importance.  Hubris which finally leads to misfortune or to one's undoing.

² Phariseeism initially met the need for a group who would separate themselves from the encroaching Hellenism of the day.  As with all well-meaning movements which turn sour, this movement eventually turned into obnoxious self-righteousness on the part of many. (Not all -- there were those like Nicodemus [John 3:1ff]  and Gamaliel  [Acts 5:34] who were sincere seekers of the righteousness of God.)

v.9 The parable needs little interpretation -- only exposition.  Jesus himself sets the stage by saying the parable is about people who "trusted in themselves that they were   righteousness".  And there's the rub -- it is trust in God not self that saves.  It is the righteousness of God we need. "Self-righteousness" is a contradiction in terms if it be true that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23)  [ I Ki.8:48 in Solomon's prayer]  "...for there is no one who does not sin..."

"regarded others with contempt"  contempt = "exouthenoow" also "despised" or "to consider as nothing"   Contemporary meaning along the line of...  "they thought others to be nobody"

v.11 The NRSV likely misses the boat by translating "stratheis tauta pros heauto proseucheto"  Standing by himself was praying thus..."  More likely is the NASB "was praying thus to himself"  (Also KJV)  The NIV translates this, "stood up and prayed about himself".   Quite literally this is, "The Pharisee standing these things to himself prayed." The construction would give weight to the sense that the Pharisee was not genuinely praying to God, but was in conversation with himself. (His spiritual pride / hubris cuts him off from authentic relationship with God)

v.14 The tax collector is prominent in Luke at the outcast who receives the grace of God. (5:12, 27; 7:34, 37; 15:1-2; 16:20)

Jesus' hearers, unlike we moderns, would think that it was the pious Pharisee who deserved acceptance by God, while the tax collector should be cast out of God's presence. The story is a radical declaration of the grace of God.


2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18

From our last cycle

This is the third in a series based on the lectionary passages from II Timothy during October.  The four parts to this series are:  I. The Certainty,  II. The Promise,  III. The Basis, IV. The Prize  [See 10/4/98 for additional notes on the series]

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 ~ Foundations for the Church ~ IV. The Prize

As the old Apostle comes to the end of his ministry his heart is drawn to the goal his life has been aimed at since the Lord Jesus said to Ananias, "...I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." [Acts 9:15] The time for letting go has arrived and he looks forward to the prize.

1. The Design (6-8)

* As Paul's life comes to a close he looks at his "departure" - this departure has a destination
* The design of the Christian life is to complete the course - finish the race. (In a time when many focus on "great beginnings" in Christian living, Paul's emphasis on "finishing" the race is a welcome one.)
* The reward "crown" is something Christ gives - it is not granted by others nor taken by ourselves.

2. The Defense (16-17)

* When Paul first appeared before the magistrates - he was alone - well... not really
* The Lord stood by Paul - What greater support could there be
* The Lord used Paul to proclaim the message. Note: "...so that through me..."
      (We are instruments not the source of the message)

3. The Doxology (18)

* No matter what the outward circumstances, nothing can defeat the purposes of God in          the life of one who stays on course -- who is completing the race.
* The ultimate goal -- "To him be the glory forever and ever!"


 Worship Helps

A Unison Prayer of Invocation 

It is good to be here in your presence Lord. Here we are at home with
each other and with you. Here we discover the joy of life and the strength
to live each day with praise in our hearts to you. You alone are God! You
alone can show us the way to the life that lasts forever. We love you Lord
and we lift this prayer in adoration of your holy name. Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

O Holy Spirit of God, come and fill us with your joy as we bring these gifts
to you. And so may we become more completely, the cheerful givers that bring
joy to the heart of God. Amen.

A Prayer of Confession (Based on Jeremiah 14)

In the brilliant light of your presence, O Lord, our iniquities would overwhelm
us were it not for the promise of your mercy. We trust in your love and we
seek the safety of your forgiveness as we open our hearts before you this day.
May we more fully embrace the salvation you have given to us in Jesus Christ,
and so bring honor to your name. Amen.

Responsive Benediction

Leader: Go from this place as those who bear the Good News.
People: May God go with us and give us strength.
Leader: May the Lord keep you from harm and from every evil.
People: To God be the glory for ever and ever!