Sermon for September 2nd, 2012
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
2 Timothy 3:14-17
14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
We Proclaim God's Word, Part I
Several weeks ago, when we began this series on the "Heart of Worship," I said that Jesus Christ, God's Living Word, is at the heart of our worship service, and found throughout each of the four sections our service is divided into. For the past two weeks, we looked at the things we do as we "Gather in God's Name," and for the next two Sundays, we'll look at what we do in the section labeled "We Proclaim and Hear God's Word."
We Proclaim and Hear God's Word. Simple, right? Lynette and I read some verses from the Bible, and you hear them. Done. Finished. We can all go home early today. Before you make a bee-line for the doors, however, let's look a little more closely. We Proclaim and Hear God's Word. Let's start with the first word: We. Now I realize that the vast majority of this section in the worship service is taken up by yours truly. But the "we" modifies two verbs--proclaim and hear. It's not "he" proclaims and "we" hear, but rather "we" proclaim and "we" hear. That means that others must share in the task of proclaiming, and also that I--or anyone who is preaching--must also take care to listen and hear, as well as preach.
One place this happens is in the Children's time. Have you ever noticed that it's one of the most interactive parts of the entire worship service? I do my best to share the day's scriptural text with them in a way that they can appreciate, but through their questions, their answers, and even their random comments, they are sharing with me, and with us as well. In Matthew 18:3, Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. In the children's time, our children help us to see the world through the eyes of a child, and in doing so, they truly are proclaiming the word of God to all of us as much as I am to them (and sometimes more).
The choir is a big part of that "We," and every Sunday the Anthem that falls within this part of the worship service proclaims the word of God in song. By the way, this is a great time to put in a plug for joining the choir--if you want to be part of that "we" that proclaims God's word, and not just part of the "we" that hears it, join the choir!
And since we're putting in plugs, another place where I'd like to eventually see more "we" develop is in the scripture readings. I have been part of services where the entire congregation will stand and read one of the scripture readings together in unison. At the very least, they don't always have to be read by Rev. Lynette or me. So if you have a strong voice, and are not intimidated by names like King Cushanrishathaim of Aram-Naharaim (Judges 3:8), Mahershalalhashbaz (Isaiah 8:1), or Zaphenathpaneah (Genesis 41:45), then please see me sometime about being a lay liturgist on Sunday mornings, so you can help us proclaim God's word to God's people (and I promise I won't preach on any of those three texts anytime soon!).
We proclaim and hear God's Word. Proclaiming and hearing are interconnected, especially in our text from Romans this morning: "How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" The Oxford English Dictionary gives a rather straightforward definition of the word proclaim: "To declare publicly; to make known aloud or openly; to publish." But especially in our Presbyterian tradition, proclaiming is so much more than just reading from the scriptures--proclaiming involves explaining, teaching, persuading, connecting, and inspiring. If you have fallen asleep by the end of the sermon, we have obviously not connected with each other, and there's a good chance that we are both to blame for that. The reformers of the 16th century felt so strongly about the importance of preaching, they taught that proclaiming the Word of God IS the Word of God. They (and we as their descendants) accorded the Preached Word of God equal status with the Written Word of God. Far from being an ego-booster, this is a great and terrible responsibility for whomever stands in this pulpit. The words I speak to you right now are not my own--they are God's, and if my words ever veer away from his words, then I pray that you do actually fall asleep, rather than listening to me ramble.
But I shouldn't worry too much about that. The reformers also taught that the Holy Spirit works even through the words of a bad preacher, transforming what was said into what needed to be heard. I can think of plenty of times when I've preached what I thought was my worst sermon ever, only to have someone come up to me and say "you said exactly what God needed me to hear today." Thank God for the work of the Holy Spirit! Proclaiming and hearing are interconnected, not just by the work of the preacher, or the work of the Holy Spirit, but by the work of the one who hears. One of Jesus' favorite sayings was "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" Hearing God's word is not a passive thing -- it's active. If proclaiming involves explaining, teaching, persuading, connecting, and inspiring, then hearing involves listening, searching, reflecting, receiving, and also connecting. Hearing God's Word...is hard work!
We proclaim and hear God's Word. So what is God's Word? Now we're at the very heart of worship! Remember that God's word is not merely the bible (although that is an important aspect of God's Word!). Primarily, God's word is Jesus Christ, the living Word. And the living Word--Jesus--is reflected in God's written word, the Bible. The living Word is reflected in God's proclaimed word, the Sermon. And finally, the living Word is reflected in God's enacted word, the sacraments (We'll hear more on that from Neal Presa, who will preach next week's sermon, Part II of "We Proclaim and Hear God's Word). Three important aspects to God's Word, Jesus Christ, all at the heart of our worship service.
Hopefully (if you haven't fallen asleep!) we now have a good understanding of what we mean when we say that "We Proclaim and Hear God's Word." I'd like to turn now to my favorite sermon preparation question: So What!?! Or, in other words, why do we proclaim and hear God's word? That may seem like an obvious answer--I'll admit it's at least a pretty fundamental one. But I said at the beginning of this sermon series that we would be "going back to the basics" and perhaps there is no more basic question than this one: Why are you here? And if we can't get this one question right, we probably shouldn't expect the world to beat a path to our door and join on Sunday mornings. So...why do we proclaim and hear God's word?
When my children ask me simple but difficult questions, I start by giving long-winded, complex answers. You can probably imagine how well that works. They usually just look up at me, blink, and respond, "Why?" So I start over again, a little shorter this time, and after we've gone through this routine about five times, I throw up my hands and say..."Because I said so, that's why!" For the question "Why do we proclaim and hear God's word?" that answer might not be far off: Because God said so. In the Old Testament, God tells the Israelites to "put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 11:18-20)" In other words, just do it. In the New Testament, Jesus' last words to his disciples as he was ascending to heaven were "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." Why? Because I said so.
Obedience is good, but as any parent knows, it doesn't work nearly as well as more intrinsic motivations. The next level up from "Because I said so" is when you can get your children to start asking the question, "What's in it for me?" You can accomplish a lot with that one. And, to be honest, this approach--what's in it for me?--also answers the question "Why do we proclaim and hear God's word?
In our text from Deuteronomy, we read "If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess." And later, we read "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days." What's in it for me? Apparently long life, lots of grandkids, and blessings along the way. Not a bad deal, really.
In our text from 2nd Timothy, we find the famous verse which says that "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." That's downright practical. We proclaim and hear God's word because it's useful. So we can be proficient. We like being proficient.
But at the end of the day, I think there really has to be something more than just obedience or self-interest. Every day, thousands of television commercials, billboards, and online advertisements make desperate appeals to my self interest, and attempt to solicit my unquestioning obedience. Buy this...because I said so...because it will make you faster and smarter and better. The empty advertisements of the world promise happiness and self-gratification, but then leave us with empty wallets, houses full of junk, and extra pounds in places we don't need or want them...then they advertise diet programs, storage units, and money-making schemes to perpetuate the vicious cycle.
I come to church to get away from all that. I come to church to hear and proclaim God's word because God's word--Jesus Christ--is good news! From our passage in Romans: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!...So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." We proclaim and hear the Word of God because it gives us faith, and hope, and love, and these are the things that matter, the things that last longer than any extended warranty ever could. We proclaim and hear the Word of God not just because it offers these things to us, but because it offers these things to everyone. The world tells me to compete with my neighbor. The Word of God tells me to love my neighbor. That's good news, a recipe not just for a better life, but for a better world.