June 23, 2002
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39


"The God Who Saves"
Jeremiah 20:7-13

There is a line in our scripture reading from the prophet Jeremiah that sounds a bit strange. Jeremiah is talking about God when he says, "O lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed." There is a sense in this passage that Jeremiah is in the midst of some difficult struggles, not the least of which is a struggle with God.

On the surface the phrase, "struggle with God" seems like the silliest thing doesn't it?  If ever there was a battle that could be called a losing battle it would be a conflict in which we line ourselves up against the Lord God?

I don't know about you, but I think I would pass on getting into a struggle with God - wouldn't you?  There's an old saying that you can't fight, "city hall." But I would much rather try to fight city hall than to struggle with God.

Poor Jeremiah is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he brings God's very hard message to a people who are about to lose their national identity, he hears nothing but rejection and is persecuted by the people he speaks to. If he tries to refrain from preaching, then God's message boils up inside of him like fire in his bones. Either way, his life is miserable.

As a matter of fact, before his ministry was over, Jeremiah would be arrested for his faithfulness to God and the people would be calling for his execution. The Lord was going to bring destruction on the city of Jerusalem because of the fact that the people had completely turned away from the source of their life - form the God who had made them into a nation. They were stunned. This was the holy city of Jerusalem - God had built it to last forever. To preach such things was blasphemy!

Their reaction was immediate and harsh, "This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city..." [Jer. 26:11] Jeremiah stood firm, however and said that no matter what the people did, he had simply told them the truth and their struggle was not against him, but against God.

Indeed, when all is said and done, when the people have denounced and threatened him, Jeremiah has one final place to stand. Listen again:

"... I hear many whispering: "Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!" All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. "Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him." But the LORD is with me..." 

All of Jeremiah's trial leads to an unlikely burst of praise as he affirms the bottom line of his relationship with God - even a God against whom he struggles with regularity:

"Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers."

***

Jeremiah's God you see,  is the God who saves!

The message of God can be hard to deliver. Faithfulness to God can be difficult to maintain and the consequences of turning away from God are devastating as Jeremiah's people are hearing. Yet, God is the God who saves. Even when the people Jeremiah railed against were rushing headlong into destruction, the message of God was one of salvation. From our vantage point we know that the history of Judah ended but even so, this was a God who saves. Even if that salvation was reserved for a small remnant of the people. The people of God are always the people of God. Listen to this promise from Jeremiah that has given hope to countless thousands of people in times of trouble.

"... I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."
                                                                                      [Jer. 29:11]

From one end of scripture to the other, this one characteristic of  the God Israel praised and Christians rejoice in is that this is the God who saves!

In our Psalm of the day, the Psalmist is in the midst of trials, calling out to God who seems not to be there in the midst of trial, but he still cries out, "My prayer is to you O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me."

In the reading from Romans, Paul writes, "...if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him." [Rom. 6:8] And in the gospel, Jesus says, "...those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Each of the Lectionary readings today points to a "bottom line" foundation for Christian living that says, "No matter how perilous the times or rough the road we must take, when we hang tough and persist in trusting in the faithfulness of God... we will discover at last that God is the God who saves!

Jeremiah, the followers of Christ and the Apostle Paul along with the earliest Christians discovered that when the worst came their way, the only thing left standing in their lives was the God who promised to be present for them in life and in death. "We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him," Paul wrote. [Rom 6:9] And then Christ passed this promise on to those whom he forewarned would face Jeremiah-like persecution and threats of death, "...those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

***

I strongly suspect that many of you have discovered the God who saves in troubled times. Our times of distress may be different than those of Jeremiah, or Peter or Paul, but no one escapes the difficulties life brings. Whether it was a time of personal turmoil, family difficulty, serious illness or the loss of someone you loved - when you looked back and wondered how in the world you ever made it through, it was because God was there for you in the dark times.  Perhaps you were shaken at the time and even wondered about your faith - but now you look back and realize that you were supported by a foundation others could not see, guided by a power no one else was aware of and loved by a God who was dwelling in the shadows of your pain.

These experiences call to mind the popular poem "Footprints" in which the writer speaks of a dream in which he sees footprints in the sand - sometimes one set of footprints and sometimes two. Upon reflection the dreamer sees that during the toughest times there was only one set of footprints and complains to the Lord:

So I said to the Lord, "You promised me, Lord,
That if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
There have only been one set of prints in the sand.
Why, When I have needed you most, you have not been there for me?"
The Lord replied,
"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints
Is when I carried you."

When Jeremiah was under the most extreme pressure he complained to God, "Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.

Wow! Jeremiah is a bit cranky here. I am not sure I would have the nerve to talk with God like this. It is not so much that there have not been times when I was disturbed that there did not seem to be much in the way of divine comfort in my life. There have been moments when I wondered - really wondered - why certain unthinkable things happened in my life when I was doing all I could to honor and serve God.

As much as I hate to admit it (and maybe some of you can relate here) there have been a few times when I felt a bit like Jeremiah when he complained that God was to him, "...like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail." This is no little thing Jeremiah is saying here. I have just never thought to talk to God in the way Jeremiah did.

But then, this relationship between God and Jeremiah was so real and so profound that even in the midst of the darkest times Jeremiah can affirm, "But the Lord is with me..." He can praise God for the fact that no matter what happens, even if he loses his life, he will sing praise to the God who saves.

***

Now I have to tell you that this particular passage from Jeremiah is not one of my favorite passages to preach from. And our reading from Matthew is not much easier - especially when we get to the part about bringing a sword instead of peace to the earth and the thing about families being divided over Christ. Listen again to these strong words from Jesus:

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me." 

The daughter-in-law, mother-in-law conflict is easy enough to understand - but the rest is rather hard to take. Personally, I prefer to talk about passages that say things like, "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." And then there's that wonderful line from John 14:14, "If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." Jesus is the one who calls the little children to come to him and scolds the disciples for trying to send them away.

But, what about this Jesus who says that if we love our son or daughter more than him, we are not worthy of him? What is at the heart of this struggle Jeremiah has with God and this absolutely radical call of Jesus to follow him at all costs?

***

The message of today's readings is one that needs to be lifted up for the church in our time. Maybe September 11, 2001 helps us along in this, but there are some things in life that come at a horrific cost.  Things like freedom and liberty and the value of every living human being in the eyes of God.

Clearly, to live like Jesus lived and to honor what Jesus honored and to proclaim the love and mercy of God to every soul regardless of station in life, race, color or creed can be a dangerous thing indeed. This is a message lots of people do not want to hear. If you commit your self to proclaiming God's absolute love for every living person no matter color, creed or condition, you will discover strong resistance. And if you openly affirm that everyone who claims to follow Jesus as Lord needs to make the teaching, values and commandments of God the very center of their lives - you will hit a strong wall!

There is a fervent call to discipleship in our scripture readings today. They call us to consider what it means to be a person of faith when the chips are down, when there is no support for faith in the world around us and when the whole world calls us to turn away from God and choose the values of the world over commitment to Christ.

The dominant thought in the lessons for toady and indeed in the whole journey of people of faith throughout the scriptures is that a relationship with the God who saves is to be valued above all. It as a call to "get real" with God and with our commitment to following Christ. In a time of great trial in our world, there is the most amazing need for a muscular Christianity that will hang tough, hang in and remain standing after the storms hit!

May God give us ears to hear, eyes to see and a heart to know that the Lord is our refuge and strength when everything else fails.


There is no small amount of controversy over who wrote the poem "Footprints" and a web site at geocities that investigates the authorship. (Just be aware that geocities web sites carry lots of advertising some of which is provocative. - A caution for some who build church web sites on services that offer free space - with advertising.)

The complete poem:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints.
Other times there were one set of footprints.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life
When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow, or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.
So I said to the Lord, "You promised me, Lord,
That if I followed you, you would walk with me always.
But I noticed that during the most trying periods of my life
There have only been one set of prints in the sand.
Why, When I have needed you most, you have not been there for me?"
The Lord replied,
"The times when you have seen only one set of footprints
Is when I carried you."


Connections in the Texts

In the gospel reading Christ spells out the cost of following him.  Those who "lose their life for my sake will find it."  We are not to fear that which can do harm to the physical body, but that which can do harm to the soul.  In Romans, Paul says we are dead to sin and alive to God.  Death no longer has power over the one who is united to Christ. The Genesis text relates tangentially in that God saves Hagar's son Ishmael from death.

To follow Christ and choose his ways is the way to authentic life.  Both Matthew and Romans contrast two ways of life.  One leads to the life Christ gives -- the life which overcomes and defeats death and the life of the "old self" which was self-directed and is finally overcome by death.  A key question in the gospel and epistle is:   "What is life and what is death?"  Matthew speaks to outward struggle with opposition from others who oppose our faith.  Paul speaks to inward struggle with our human nature which opposes the values of the new life of Christ within.

Matthew 10:24-39

A summary of this text would be:  Jesus says to his disciples,  "Expect the same kind of treatment people give to me -- but, don't be afraid because God is watching over you.  If you follow me, you can expect conflict and sometimes even death -- yet, with me you will have life that death can not touch."

"If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul..."  See Mark 3:22. 

This passage is a strong call and caution to followers of Christ.  They can expect opposition and conflict from religious officials and even from their families.  Jesus experienced both.  From the Pharisees, he received accusations that he was in league with the devil and even from his own family came a concern that he was "out of his mind."  [Mk. 3:21-22]

By the time Matthew writes his gospel, many in the young church are experiencing persecution and hardship because of their faith.  Others are falling away under the pressure to deny Christ and affirm the lordship of Caesar. Matthew reaches back and gathers sayings of Jesus that speak to this deep concern.  To these concerns, Jesus says three times that they should not fear.  "Do not be afraid!"

In our own time and culture (with the exception our subscribers whose ministries are in particular third world cultures), most of us do not face the difficult persecution -- however there is a strong call to discipleship.  Indeed the persecution for many of us is not the violent persecution of the world, but the reverse psychology type persecution of luxury and leisure.  I will never forget my wife's struggle to communicate to her grandfather what the term, "three-day-weekend"  meant.  He had been a farmer, God rest his soul, and a "day off" was otherwise called Christmas or Easter!

This text gives an opportunity to discuss interpretation of scripture.  Jesus makes a couple of statements that appear to absolutely contradict things he says elsewhere.  "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword..."  How does that square with "My peace I give to you..." [John 14:27]  or, "Put your sword back in its place..."   [Mt. 26:52]   Scripture can not be properly understood apart from context, and culture.  Jesus' comments in John 14 have to do with the peace he gives in contrast to the peace the world gives.  "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword..." on the other hand, has to do with the conflict that will come when commitment to Christ conflicts with commitment to family, friends, work etc. One may have the peace of Christ at the same time as she or he has conflict with the world.   That's context.  When Jesus says, "I have come to set a man against his father..." he is using Jewish hyperbole.  This is akin to sayings like, "If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away." [Mt. 18:9]  Jewish hyperbole sets two opposites in tension so as to make clear the choice.

Romans 6:1-11

One of the criticisms Paul faced was the old argument that if salvation comes by grace and not by works, then can we not do what we want when we want and still count of God's gift of salvation?  If grace is "unmerited favor",  then I can do what I want -- God will forgive me and give me grace.

Or as Paul puts it, "Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?"  His answer is clear... "By no means!"  The resulting text is one of the great New Testament passages on the meaning of new life in Christ.  Our baptism identifies us with the death and resurrection of Christ.  As Christ defeated death and rose to a new life, so also we have a new life to live.  The life we have in Christ can never expire or be impacted by death.  This life is a gift which can not be bought by the greatest wealth the world has to offer.  There is a question to suggest to your listeners that comes from this text.  A question to ask in light of the inevitable envy most of us will feel when we see the man with the "yacht." 

"Will you still envy this guy in eighty years?"  Nuff said!

Death no longer has any power over us!  Possible theme here is, "The Day Death Died!"

Genesis 21:8-21  (From the first choice of OT reading)

This is a tough story.   While studying this episode some years ago in a bible study, a woman in our group commented, "Well this isn't very nice at all!"  It was a rich bit of understatement.  her point was that is was Sarah's idea in the first place that Abraham try to have a child with Hagar.  Now she wants her thrown out!

God is going to keep the promise to Abraham no matter what -- poor Hagar and her child get caught up in the whims of important people -- or at least so it seems.

The text makes a few important points.  [1]  God's promises are sure in spite of the failures of the people who receive the promises.  [2]  God hears the cries of all people.   [3] God's plans are not thwarted by our inadequacies.  The main point is not the character deficiencies of Abraham and Sarah, but the character of God.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship 

Leader:   Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
People:  In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
Leader:   Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
People:  O Lord, you, abound in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Leader:   Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
People:  We shall bow down before you, O Lord, and glorify your name. Amen.

 

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord God of mercy and great compassion, your love has encouraged us to come to you with honesty and truth. We confess that we can not free ourselves from the grip of desire for earthly things without the work of your Holy Spirit in our lives. Along with the gifts we bring today, we pray that you would receive and renew our hearts for the building of your kingdom. In the name of Jesus our Redeemer we pray. Amen.

 

Assurance of Pardon

Remember the comfort of the scriptures brothers and sisters, that if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us of all our sin and to cleanse us from unrighteousness.  In Christ we are forgiven. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Sometimes, O Lord our God, the values of this world overwhelm our hearts
and minds.  We'd love to win the lottery or spend a month on a yacht down in
Nassau.  We are so vulnerable to jealousy toward those who spend summers in
Vermont, winters in Hawaii and vacations in Paris. O shape our hearts to sing your praise at all times, O Lord. There is nothing in all the universe that can compare with your love and grace.

Open our hearts more fully to the life without limits that is ours if only we could
train our hearts to look to you for fulfillment.  Give us a faith that can see beyond
the illusions of this world and a trust that can tell the difference between the glitter
of empty gain and the gift of eternal glory.

You have given us so much more than we could ever ask for.  Your love and
grace are greater luxuries than any lottery could ever deliver.  The gift of new life
which is ours in Christ is beyond anything we could ever imagine.  You have given
us freedom from the fear and the finality of death.  How can we not love you and
how can we not proclaim your glory?

Come bless us, O Lord, with courage to tell the story, joy to live the new life and
hope to color our future.   Amen.

Amen

A Prayer Of Dedication

We who have received the gift of life everlasting come before you O Holy God,
to offer these gifts to you.  We are humbled and we are honored.  Though we
were dead, you made us alive. Though we had nothing to give, you chose
to build the kingdom of love through our giving.  O bless us now, our Lord, as
we bring these gifts and our hearts to you.  Amen.