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Sermon for Sunday 12 September 2021

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-10

4The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. 5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. 6I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. 7But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. 8He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. 10Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.

Psalm 116:1-8

1I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. 2The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. 3Then I called upon the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.” 4Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion. 5The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me. 6Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well. 7For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. 8I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.

Second Reading: James 3:1-12

1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Gospel: Mark 9:14-29

14When {Jesus, Peter, James and John} came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Becoming a Faithful Witness

A family decided to send a playpen to their friend who had just given birth to her fourth child.  She responded by writing this thank-you note.  “Thank you so much for the playpen.  It’s wonderful.  I sit in it every afternoon and read.  The children can’t get near me.”  When I first read this note, I couldn’t tell if mom was writing the note for the baby or if she was writing it for herself.  Think about it, wouldn’t it be nice if we could shelter ourselves from the relational challenges of life?

Someone has written that, for twentieth century Americans, our lawns are our moats.  All too often we seek to distance ourselves from others.  However, for the Christian, this inclination runs counter to what Jesus expects of us as His witnesses.  We cannot be effective witnesses unless we’re willing to engage in meaningful contact with other people.  It takes two to communicate.  In today’s Old Testament reading, we find the formula for witnessing to the good things God has done in our lives.  It’s a formula that may not be easy to follow, but it is one that offers us the ability of testify to God’s goodness in every circumstance of life.  The first step of this formula of becoming a witness for God, is we begin by learning to actively listen.

Probably one of the hardest things for us to learn is, no one can be an effective speaker, unless they first learn to be an effective and sensitive listener.  It’s by actively listening, that we become aware of God’s message.  What do I mean by active listening?  Active listening means giving the message sender our undivided attention, hearing the message, and then assigning meaning to the words.  Additionally, any message, especially messages from God, requires us to be a messenger that are worthy of the message.  It’s only by actively listening for God’s message and by reflecting on that message, that we can become worthy of carrying God’s message to others.

Listen to how Isaiah addresses the need to listen: “Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.  The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward” (Isaiah 50:4-5).  The repetition of the theme in these two verses is done to add emphasis.  Isaiah stressed the need to hear the message of God.  This is the first step in carrying that message to a larger audience.  A man once told me of an experience he had as a child.

His father was a minister, so he grew up going to church.  He was a thoughtful and obedient child.  He was generally eager to please his parents.  At the age of eleven, this boy was sitting in church one summer Sunday morning.  The air conditioning never seemed to work very well in the older church sanctuary, so it was rather warm that morning.  Many of the women were using their bulletins to fan themselves.  It was about midway in the service and the boy’s father had already begun the sermon.   Then one of the ladies in the choir caught the boy’s eye.  She was motioning to him.  He looked around to see if perhaps she was looking at someone else.  But, no, her gestures were meant for him.

This woman was trying to communicate something to him.  Then it hit him.  She was pointing to a fan on the other side of the sanctuary.  She wanted him to go over and turn the fan on.  The boy really didn’t want to do what she was asking.  His dad was in the pulpit and his mother was sitting on the organ bench.  He didn’t want to do anything that would be conspicuous or would seem disruptive in the service.  Still, he felt he needed to be obedient to this woman.  She was after all an adult, and he had been taught to listen to his elders.  So, he responded.  

He got up and walked around to the back of the sanctuary and headed toward the fan.  Before he knew it, his father had stopped preaching and all eyes were on him.  His father said something to the effect, “I’m sorry.  I’m used to others walking around, but when it’s my own son, it’s hard to concentrate.”  So, with everyone watching and waited he did what he’d been asked to do.  With great embarrassment, he turned on the fan.  Then he quickly sat down in the first open chair he found.  As he sat through the rest of the service, he promised himself that it would be a long time before he looked at the choir.  Sometimes we make the same mistake.  

We listen, but we listen to the wrong voice.  We get sidetracked by pursuing the wrong message.  We’re too easily led down the wrong path.  With information coming at us from all sides, it’s sometimes hard to filter out the good from the bad.  This is why Isaiah stressed the need to listen to the message that originates with God.  This is why Bible study and prayer are so vitally important.  You have to make sure that the message you hear is indeed from God.  It seems that it’s no longer uncommon to encounter a preacher who has either stopped listening or never learned to listen for God.  It’s a tragic thing to witness.  The same can be said of theologians, Bible teachers and Sunday School teachers. 

The theologian, messenger, preacher or teacher, can all speak words that sound as if they come from God.  They may even be able to offer intellectual insights.  But, if they are no longer listening to God themselves, their words will lack power and clarity.  They’re words are not carried by God’s spirit of eternal truth.  I read a tragic story the other day about problems that two congregations endured in another area.

In each case, both pastors were guilty of violating at least the first, sixth, and eighth commandments.  The minister of the first congregation was married and had small children.  Over time it became apparent that this pastor had been living a double life for many years.  He was having an adulterous affair and had used some $100,000 of the church’s money to provide an apartment and other things for his lover.  In another church, a minister, who was married with a young child, had an affair with the church secretary.  The secretary happened to be the wife of the senior pastor.  Three families were left in shambles by these minister’s indiscretions.  In both situations, the ministers were removed from their positions, but not without a great deal of conflict and trauma for the churches.  Each church will be years trying to overcome the pain and disappointment resulting from leadership that no longer listened for the voice of God.

We cannot be effective witnesses for God if we aren’t in communion with God.  If we’re to fulfill our calling to be God’s ambassadors in this world, we must begin by listening for God’s message for us and by being obedient of His commands.  The second step in carrying God’s message to a larger audience is to use our tongues properly.  Not only does God waken our ears to hear, but God also gives us tongues to speak.

Speech is a gift, and we’re charged with using that gift in ways that will be pleasing to God.  Isaiah was addressing the people of Israel who were living in an alien country.  They had been exiled and by now they had become disheartened.  They were weary of the struggles of slavery and of how to be faithful Jews in a foreign land.  They constantly faced the temptation of the voices around them.  Isaiah presented a challenge to the people.  He tells them that they had been given tongues for a very specific purpose.  That purpose was that they were expected “to sustain with a word [those] that [are] weary” (Isaiah 50:4).  But how do we do that?

Isaiah didn’t fully spell out how we’re to sustain those who are weary.  But part of our call, as believers, is to uplift each other.  And to do this, we must learn to exercise the first step in this formula, listening; actively listening for God to direct us.  This might come through the gentle nudging of God’s spirit, or by some outright instruction, or by a sign God gives to show us those in need of a sustaining word.  This sustaining word might be shared through an encouraging word or an act of kindness.  It’s important that we actively listen to what God is telling us to do.

Years ago, when Bart Starr was the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, he had a little incentive scheme going with his eldest son.  For each “A” his son brought home from school, Bart would give him a nickel.  After a tough Packer loss, in which Bart felt he had not played well, he flew home from St. Louis.  He was sore from the game and weary from the travel.  When he finally reached home, he went to his bedroom to get ready for bed.  There, he found a note on his pillow which said: “Dear Dad, I thought you played a great game.  Love, Bart, Jr.”  Taped to the note were two nickels.  Often, it’s the little things that can carry so much meaning when we reach out to others.  

If we truly understand our call to sustain those who are weary, why do we hold back from offering the encouragement that can be so meaningful?   The truth is, society today feeds our sinful tendency to be inwardly focused.  Our own selfish nature encouraged by culture today, conditions us to be self-centered.  Advertisements and all forms of media teach us to look out for number one.  We’re told to first think of our rights, of what’s best for me and what we think other people, including the government, owes us.  We’re desensitized to what others may feel or need.  But Isaiah points us away from a self-serving agenda.

Isaiah addressed the people of Israel and he pointed them to God.  He told the people to listen for God’s message and then he pointed them to each other.  He told them to sustain the ones among them with an encouraging word.  I read a story the other day about an individual who faced some difficulties as a teenager.  He developed a skin disease that caused him to have third-degree burn like infections on his face, his shoulders, and his back.  

The infections were so painful that his skin couldn’t be touched without causing it to bleed.  The most painful aspect of his experience, though, was the damage that was done to his self-esteem.  His face was disfigured and the kids at school teased him mercilessly.  It got to the point that he simply didn’t want to be with other people.  He started staying at home.  He didn’t want to risk the cruel things others might say to him.  Yet, throughout that experience, he remembers that he never wanted to miss his youth group meetings at church.  

The reason he never wanted to miss a meeting was that one of the youth counselors was a woman who aggressively reached out to him.  She showed him unconditional love and warmth, and slowly he began to feel worthy of love again.  This woman cared about him, and she conveyed that love in the way that she talked to him and the encouragement she gave.  Through these acts of kindness, he regained a sense of hope that, in time, others too might care for him as well.

As ambassadors and messengers of God’s kingdom, we must first actively listen for God’s message, and second, we must be mindful of the tongue, so that we can carefully speak to one another in ways that offer encouragement and affirmation.  If we’re faithful in this regard, we can fulfill these words of Isaiah: “The Lord has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word [those] that [are] weary”.  The third aspect of carrying God’s message to a larger audience has to do with fearless commitment.

The ultimate test of our faithfulness comes in our times of testing.  If we, as Christ’s witnesses, melt under the heat of stress, then our witness lacks the power and authenticity it needs to be heard.  Jesus’ voice came through with its greatest power and clarity during the times that He was persecuted and crucified.  If we lack courage, are we really worthy to be called representatives for God and, in fact, do we not compromise the heritage of the entire Church and its history?  From almost the beginning the Church’s history, its brightest lights, the apostles, disciples, the martyrs, church fathers and devoted people have shone brightly in the times of the greatest adversity.  It was their witness under duress that sparked the church toward growth, renewal, and increased vitality.

The disciples who are truest to their call and, therefore, most pleasing to God, often suffer ridicule and persecution at the hands of their own countrymen.  Isaiah appears to have witnessed or experienced, firsthand, the persecution that can come with being God’s faithful witness.  His words reflect that he understood the gravity of what lies ahead for God’s people who take seriously the task of bearing God’s message to others.  Listen again to what he said: “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).

As faithful witnesses of God, we have no need to hide from the shame or the pain incurred on behalf of God.  Remember what Jesus promised in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12). 

Jesus followed this blessing with this declaration, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.  “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (vss. 13-16).  We’re called to boldly go out and make a difference in this world for God’s kingdom.  The light of Christ in us is meant to be shared so that it sheds light in the dark places to bring wholeness, comfort, and healing to a lost and hurting world.

 Our call to reach out means we go without fear of recrimination, nor do we ever need to seek retribution for the evil we might incur for our witness, because we can put our trust in God and in the ultimate vindication that will come when God’s kingdom is finally established in all its fullness.  All will be made right on the final day of judgment.  Jesus is a just and righteous judge.  All will answer for what they have done in the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:10).  But this focuses only on the more difficult part of our call.  We need to remember that we’re also called, as Isaiah was, to comfort each other.

In our first reading for today, Isaiah used this opportunity to affirm that God is the One who sustains His people.  God is the source of our strength and our staying power.  Listen again to how he expressed it: “For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near” (Isaiah 50:7-8).

There may be times when we’re confused, or we don’t fully understand what God is doing in our lives.  In these times of uncertainty, we must not lose hope.  God is indeed working, and our patience and faith will not go unrewarded.  It may take time, it may require suffering, but God will provide the strength we need to sustain us.  Let me share something that was shared with me this week.  It speaks to the heart of what our Old Testament lesson is teaching us this week. 

This friend said he was sitting in his office working on the variety of things he needed to get done this week.  He said his week seemed to be going like most any week.  He felt the normal pressures, he was making and taking the normal phone calls, dealing with the normal pressures of planning for the upcoming events in the church.  He said if asked, he probably would have said things were rather normal.  As he sat putting his thoughts down on the computer, he was interrupted by a phone call.

As he answered the call, the individual on the other end simply said, I’ve been thinking about you and praying for you and wanted to say hello and see if there was anything they could do to help out.  The pastor said they chatted for 5 or so minutes and the call was over.  The pastor said that the more he thought about that call ,the more he realized that was exactly what he needed.  He simply needed to know that someone cared; that someone was praying for him.  He said for him it was a much-needed word of affirmation and encouragement.  He said he was glad the person listened to God telling them to call and have a brief and casual conversation.

We all need encouragement and support from time to time especially when times are difficult.  Our call to go as witnesses of God’s Word is one that can bring with it ridicule, and for some around the world, it can even mean death.  Folks, we’re called to faithfully and boldly share the gospel of God’s grace to a dark and sin filled world.  To do this, we must first actively listen, second, we need to speak God’s truth in love, and we need to be fearless in our commitment.  But God also speaks words of encouragement for His people.

Oftentimes these words of encouragement are meant to be shared with each other.  We cannot allow the noise and chaos of this world to drown our God’s gentle voice.  We must take the time to actively listen for the message of God, and we must be open and ready for the opportunity to speak to sustain the weary.  We must also be faithful witnesses, even in the face of persecution.  We’ll probably never know the impact we have on others as we go into the world as God’s salt and light, but we must be prepared to speak when needed.


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