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Sermon for 29 June 2014

FIRST READING Jeremiah 28:5–9

5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. 7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.”

PSALM Psalm 119:153–160

153 Behold my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your teaching. 154 Plead my cause and redeem me; according to your promise, give me life. 155 Deliverance is far from the wicked, for they do not study your statutes. 156 Great is your compassion, O LORD; preserve my life according to your ways. 157 There are many who persecute and oppress me, yet I have not swerved from your decrees. 158 I look at the treacherous with loathing, they who have not kept your word. 159 See how I love your commandments! O LORD, preserve me by your steadfast love. 160 The sum of your word is truth; your righteous justice is eternal.


SECOND READING Romans 7:1–13

1 Do you not know, brothers and sisters — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only during that person’s lifetime? 2 Thus a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law concerning the husband. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man, she is not an adulteress. 4 In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. 7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. 13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

GOSPEL Matthew 10:34–42

34 Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40 Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Will Rodgers, the famous cowboy, vaudeville actor, humorist and movie star of the 1920s and 30s, had a reputation that he could make anyone laugh. The US president at the time, Calvin Coolidge, also had a reputation. It was said that he never laughed at anything. As fate would have it, Will Rodgers was invited to the White House. People of course were curious what would happen. Both men’s reputations were at stake. It’s said that Will Rodgers came through the reception line and was introduced to the President. “President Coolidge, this is Will Rodgers. Mr. Rodgers, this is President Calvin Coolidge.” Will Rodgers leaned forward and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.” The President cracked up and started laughing. Like them or not, we most often admire people who are quick on their feet. Those people who are witty, quick with a comeback, always seeming to be able to say the right thing at the right time. And despite the way people think of him today, General George Armstrong Custer was also known as that kind of person.
In fact, many historians think that General Custer might have been the next President of the United States if he hadn’t been killed in the Battle of Little Big Horn. He was so popular, as a matter of fact, that the Democratic Party was priming him to be their next candidate. Gen. Custer had a reputation for being quick on his feet, able to analyze battle situations and react quickly. And his quickness paid off in many battles.
Fresh out of West Point, Custer served under General McClellan in the Civil War. At one point during the war, it’s said that Gen. McClellan marched to the edge of a river where he and all of his officers stopped their horses. Gen. McClellan commented, “I wish I knew how deep this river was so I knew whether the troops could cross or not.” The officers sat on their horses wondering what to do. Custer reportedly spurred his horse and rode into the middle of the river. From the river he called out, “General, this is how deep it is.” It’s no wonder Custer developed a reputation for being able to make quick decisions. It was his strength. It could also be said that it was his weakness as well.
Years later, Custer was marching his 7th Cavalry across the Great Plains and he decided to try the speed of his greyhounds against a herd of antelope grazing two miles away. On the spur of the moment, he left his troops and took off after the antelope. He chased this herd several miles but couldn’t catch up with them. By the time he stopped, he realized he was lost in that vast wilderness. Looking around to try and get his bearings, he spotted his first buffalo. Giving in to the emotions of the moment, Gen. Custer again spurred his horse and took off after the buffalo. After chasing the huge bull for several miles, he decided to finish the hunt by shooting the buffalo in the head. As he lowered his revolver to the buffalo’s head, the animal whirled on the horse, so that Custer’s thoroughbred reared just as Custer fired the shot. Gen. Custer ended up shooting his own horse in the head.
As he freed himself of his dead horse, he suddenly realized that he was not only lost out on the Great Plains, he was also without food, without water, and without a horse. Luckily, hours later, his troops found him. He could have easily died out in the middle of the prairie. People like Gen. Custer are popular because they show the ability to be decisive ” sometimes to their own detriment. The prophet Jeremiah, on the other hand, wasn’t quick with a comeback at all. He didn’t react like Will Rodgers or Gen. Custer. He was the kind of person who had to go home and think about it for a while and then come back later to give his response.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, we read about the false prophet Hananiah who announced to the people that they didn’t need to listen to Jeremiah any more. Jeremiah had spent many weeks wearing a wooden yoke around his neck as a metaphor for the judgment that was coming. It was the same kind of yoke that an ox would wear to plow the field. Wearing the yoke around his neck, Jeremiah announced to the people and to the priests, “God will send us into bondage. God is going to judge us for our lack of repentance unless we turn from our evil and wickedness. God will send us into slavery in Babylon.” Hananiah, a false prophet, took the yoke off of Jeremiah’s neck, broke it, and announced, “Thus says the Lord, our bondage will be broken. Babylon will be defeated so that we will be victorious and live at peace within two years.” Jeremiah, not known for being quick with a response, stuttered and stammered. He wasn’t sure what to say. His only reaction was to answer sarcastically, “Amen! You go ahead, tell everybody that. I hope you are right!” And not knowing what else to say, he simply went home.
However, when Jeremiah got home, he rethought the whole conversation. For those of us who aren’t very quick on our feet, once we’re away from the situation we find ourselves plagued with thoughts like, “Boy, I wish I had said such and such….” I suspect Jeremiah laid in bed that night thinking about what had occurred. But Jeremiah instead of fretting over the lack of a response, did the right thing; instead of continuing to stew about the “what if”, he prayed about it until the Lord gave him a response.
With God’s words in mind, Jeremiah goes back several days later and made his announcement to Hananiah, “You’ve taken a wooden yoke from my neck and you’ve broken it and said that God will break the yoke of Babylon. Here’s the word of the Lord. God says you have broken a wooden yoke but God will replace it with a yoke of iron. Babylon will destroy our nation as punishment for our sins. Hananiah, since you misled the people with your lies, you will be dead within a year. Now, let’s see who the true prophet is!” What Jeremiah did was respond instead of react. No, he wasn’t quick on his feet. Yes, he had to go home and think about it for a while, but when he was finally ready with a response, it was a message from the Lord. Having said that, I’d like to take a few moments this morning to consider the difference between reacting and responding; between taking impulsive actions and thinking things through.
First, when we respond rather than react, when we give situations adequate thought, and this can help us guard against being gullible. The false prophet Hananiah used all the right phrases. He said, “Thus says the Lord,” the official phrase of a prophet. He brought comforting words. After all, shouldn’t God’s messenger comfort the people? Shouldn’t all sermons and communications from God be feel good messages, the gospel of prosperity, ones that never remind us of our shortcomings and sin? Jeremiah knew that wasn’t the case; he knew better, that the message was wrong. He may not have been able to put his finger on it at first, but he knew something was wrong. He needed to go home to think about it and pray about it in order to clarify God’s will for that situation. In the same way, we too need to be careful of feel good messages, gospels of prosperity, of messages that tell us that there is no consequences for our actions which will help guard us from being gullible, just because someone uses the right words and sounds convincing.
In the 1930s, a politician in Germany used all the right phrases. He spoke about “God and country.” He spoke about God being “on our side, so let’s get this nation going again.” The German people cheered for him. But not just the people. He was against communism, so the churches thought he must be on their side as well. Thus, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany using all the right phrases. Many thought he would save their nation. As history came to prove, the German people were sadly mistaken. When we learn to respond instead of reacting, we’re far more likely to recognize, that quick, easy answers aren’t always the true answers. Quick, easy answers many times look like they offer an immediate solution to problems, but usually they don’t take into account the complexity of certain situations.
Sir Thomas More wrote a book in the 1500s titled, UTOPIA. He described a place where everything is perfect. Utopia is a place where decisions are always wise and people are always happy. As Garrison Keillor would say, “The children are all above average.” Sir Thomas More devotes a portion of the book to his ideas for a perfect government. He writes, “There’s also a rule in the Council that no resolution can be debated on the day that it’s first proposed. All discussion is postponed until the next well-attended meeting. Otherwise someone’s liable to say the first thing that comes into his head, and then start thinking up arguments to justify what he has just said, instead of trying to decide what’s best for the community. That type of person is quite prepared to sacrifice the public to his own prestige, just because, absurd as it may sound, he’s ashamed to admit that his first idea may have been wrong when his first idea should have been to think before he spoke.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we made a rule in Congress that when a resolution or a new bill is presented on the floor, nobody can debate it for a month, because everybody has to think before they speak? Talk about a utopian dream! I wonder what it would do for the leadership of our country if we learned to respond instead of reacting off the top of our heads? What if we stopped jumping to the quick, easy answers and instead, carefully thought out and prayed about the deeper issues with all their complexities?
Arthur Gordon is a wonderful Christian writer. He has written a book called A Touch of Wonder, telling some of his own experiences. He has interviewed famous people and traveled widely. One of his chapters is titled, “The Power of Purposeful Pausing.” In it, he discusses a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson. Here’s the quote: “Extreme busyness, whether at school, work or market, is a symptom of deficient energy.” In other words, staying busy isn’t the sign of a person with a high energy level. Rather, it’s the sign of a lazy person. Why is that? Because the overly busy person hasn’t put enough energy into the really hard work of thinking and setting priorities first! Arthur Gordon read that statement and realized that if we took more time to pause, we would increase our efficiency and the work we do would be better. He calls it “the power of purposeful pausing.” The second reason for responding rather than simply reacting is that when we pause to respond, we give God a chance to speak and to act. If Jeremiah had merely spoken with no time for thought, the words would have been his words and not God’s. Sometimes we need to pause to listen to God.
Most of us cherish the music of Handel’s “Messiah,” particularly at Christmas. We love the beautiful choruses and the solos. We stand together reverently as we listen to the “Halleluia Chorus.” But most of us don’t know much about Handel’s life and what brought him to write “Messiah.”
In his 30’s Handel became successful as a composer. By his 20’s he had already established his reputation throughout Europe as an outstanding organist. On moving to London, he decided to build a reputation as a music composer. Through his 30’s and 40’s he continued to write music in London. He primarily wrote operas for the upper class. The difficulty was, that it took him so much time to write an opera and to rehearse it with the singers and to get everything ready, that by the time it was finally performed, he was deeply in debt. His income from each opera went to pay back the debts he had incurred during the composing and rehearsals. It took him about 2 months to get an opera ready. The opera would run for 3 or 6 nights; sometimes a really well-received opera would run for 11 nights. He would pay his bills and then immediately he needed to start on another opera.
For 20 years, his life became a frantic routine of churning out more and more operas to pay his debts. He was living on the edge of debtor’s prison day in and day out. Who here today can relate to that “running day and night just to stay even? Then, when he was 52 years old, Handel suffered a stroke and lost the use of the right side of his body. He could no longer accompany his operas. He was forced, by his bad health, to take a break. He left London and went to France to soak in the hot, natural baths in the hopes of getting the right side of his body working again. It was on one of those days, while sitting in the bath, praying that somehow his right hand would be restored so he could continue with his music, that somebody said to him, “Sometimes people need more than entertainment. I can still remember when I heard your oratorio, ‘Esther.’ That oratorio inspired me. It lifted my spirits at a time when I was discouraged.” The speaker wasn’t aware that the music for “Esther” had been stolen from Handel and used by someone else who combined it with the biblical material. The speaker continued, “Monsieur Handel, the world is full of discouragement. Why don’t you write something that will inspire human beings to live useful lives?”
After bathing in those hot baths for a number of days, Handel finally began to get a little movement in his hand. With full recovery, he was able to use his arm and his hand again. It was a day of rejoicing when he could sit down at an organ and play again with both hands. He returned to London. But in the back of his mind he kept thinking about that statement made to him at the baths. When he got back to London, he began writing music for biblical oratorios along with operas. Writer Charles Jennens asked for an appointment with Handel to discuss some new music for a libretto he had written called “Messiah.” Handel was so impressed by the compilation of Old Testament prophecies which were fulfilled by Jesus that he sat down and worked for twenty-four straight days. In less than a month he completed the music for the “Messiah.”
The last 20 years of his life he spent writing music for biblical oratorios. He took many Old Testament passages and put them to music. He discovered his real gift was inspirational music. Now he had a higher purpose than frantically churning out opera after opera to pay debts. But it took a crisis in his life to make him pause long enough to make the discovery. It’s a shame when we wait until we have a stroke or a heart attack or a divorce before we sit back and think about where our lives are headed.
Like Handel, we need to pause every so often in order to get God’s perspective. We need to learn to respond instead of frantically reacting. Jeremiah went home and prayed, “Lord, give me a response.” And we need to do the same. When we take time to thoughtfully and prayerfully respond, we find our way through to real answers, not the simple, superficial answers that always please the crowd. It gives God a chance to give us His answer. We give Him the chance to act in ways that bring real solutions, real healing, and real hope.
In all fairness there are those times when we need to react because there isn’t always sufficient time for us to think and then respond. But, with wisdom, we can tell the difference and learn to take the time to pray and then respond. It might not always be the most popular thing to do, and we not be seen as the people’s favorite, but it will be the right thing to do. But what’s more important, doing what God wants, what’s right, or doing the popular thing. By the way, Jeremiah was right, he took the time to pray and seek God’s will and that meant what for the popular false prophet Hananiah?

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