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Sermon for Sunday 18 October 2020

First Reading                                     Isaiah 45:1-7

1Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2“I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. 5I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Psalm                                                 Psalm 96:1-13

1Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth. 2Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day. 3Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples. 4For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. 5As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens. 6Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary! 7Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; ascribe to the Lord honor and power. 8Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his name; bring offerings and come into his courts. 9Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth tremble before him. 10Tell it out among the nations: “The Lord is King! he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” 11Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. 12Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. 13He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

Second Reading                1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

1Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Gospel                                          Matthew 22:15-22

15The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle {Jesus} in his words. 16And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

Genuine Imitations

It’s said that imitation is the highest form of flattery.  In grade school the Dallas Cowboys were the premier team in the NFL and for me, #33 Tony Dorset, was the foremost running back in the league.  When it came time for school yard football, I’d volunteer to play running back and would try my best to imitate his style of running and play.  It’s examples like this that explain why the stars of screen and sports are held accountable for their actions and are, in many cases, lifted up and encouraged to be positive role models. 

Back in 1980, the movie, “The Empire Strikes Back,” invited viewers to continue their involvement in the adventures of the victors and villains of the first movie, “Star Wars.”  Once again, we found ourselves engaged with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and the others as they battled Darth Vader and the forces of the “Dark Side”.  One of the new characters of this movie was Yoda, a medieval gargoyle that was the master teacher of the Jedi knights, the universal agents of good or the “Force”.  Luke Skywalker was sent to Yoda for training as a Jedi knight, but their initial confrontation was not altogether altruistic.

When Yoda tries to teach Luke to raise his spaceship from a swamp by using the force, Luke fails.  Yoda then levitates the spaceship up out of the swamp by thought alone or the energy of the “Force”.   As Luke watches in amazement he says, “I don’t believe it!”  To this Yoda replies in disgust, “That is why you fail.”

Yoda’s point was that Luke Skywalker couldn’t expect to become a Jedi knight until he studied, believed, practiced and acted like a Jedi knight.  Luke’s faith had to be a genuine imitation of Yoda’s faith.  Only when he believed and behaved as Yoda did, could he then do the great things Yoda did.  Eventually, when Luke became a genuine imitation, Luke would become as much like a Jedi Knight as Yoda himself.

In the opening verses of 1st Thessalonians, St. Paul says that the Christians in Thessalonica had become so Christ-like like that, “[They had become] imitators of us and of the Lord,” for you received the word in affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  The Greek word translated here as “imitators” is mimetes, from which our English word, “mime,” derives.  A mime is a person who can portray the lives of others so perfectly that their actions reproduce those lives so that they are instantly recognizable.

Because the Thessalonians had suffered persecution and abuse so willingly and faithfully, because they had endured torture and ridicule without hating in return, even their tormentors recognized the Spirit of Jesus in them.  Jesus had taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – and they had!  Jesus had prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them …” – and the Thessalonians had forgiven them!  Jesus had said, “By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – and the Thessalonians loved like that!

“Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me, all his wonderful passion and purity; O thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine, till the beauty of Jesus my Savior be seen in me.”  Nineteen centuries would pass before Albert Osborn would put those words on paper, but the Thessalonians put them into practice in the first century church.  Because they did, they became mimetes, genuine imitations of Jesus, even as were Paul and Silvanus and Timothy.  Because they had, Paul said “the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia.”

Again, Paul uses a very special Greek word here to describe the power of the Thessalonians’ witness.  “The word of the Lord sounded forth” from them – like the blast of a trumpet, like the rolling of thunder, like the crash of a cymbal in a symphony.  So certain were the Thessalonians about what they believed and whom they served that there was no mistaking that they were Christians, followers of the Way, disciples of Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah.  

In the early part of the nineteenth century, a man named John Wesley Webb died and was buried in Huntington, West Virginia.  Before he died, he wrote his own epitaph which was subsequently inscribed on his tombstone: Here lies the body of John Wesley Webb A firm believer in The Lord Jesus Christ, Jeffersonian Democracy and The Methodist Episcopal Church.  After reading this epitaph, there’s no doubt what John Wesley Webb believed in.  Likewise, there was no doubt in the mind of any citizen of ancient Macedonia and Achaia about who those Thessalonian Christians were, and in whom they believed.  God knows the world needs faithful disciples like that today!  

Our biggest weakness in this country today is Christians would rather remain anonymous; they want to simply blend in.  In spite of the fact that there are some 130 million people in America who profess to being a Christian; in spite of churches on almost every street corner; in spite of the fact that there are an estimated four Bibles in print for every living American citizen; in spite of all of these expressions of Christianity in America, most people prefer to keep their faith anonymous, silent, and known to themselves alone.  

This was poignantly illustrated several years ago when a prominent businessman named Smith died in a small midwestern town.  The next day two of his friends were reading his obituary in the local paper.  One man read to the other, “It says here Smitty was a Rotarian and a 32° Mason.”  “Yeah,” responded the other chap, “I knew that.”  “It also says he was a veteran of World War II, a stamp collector, and had been a scoutmaster for twenty years.”  “Yes, that’s right,” the second man said, “I knew that, too.”  The reader concluded, “Memorial services will be held at First Lutheran Church at 10:00 A.M., where Mr. Smith had been a lifelong member.”  “Well, well!  So Smitty was a Lutheran!” said the listener, “What do you know about that?”  What indeed!

It would appear that the late Mr. Smith thought more about his membership in his civic club and his lodge than he did about him being a member of the Body of Christ.  We know, too, that he thought more about collecting stamps than he did about living out his faith, and more about teaching young boys how to be good citizens than he did about teaching them how to be good Christians.  That’s what we know about the late Mr. Smith, who was a good man, a patriot, a solid citizen, and an anonymous Christian.

Now for those who might think I’m being a bit hard on the late Mr. Smith, remember the last recorded earthly words of Jesus according to St. Matthew; “Go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:19-20).  You can’t let you light shine before others, you can’t teach, make, and baptize and be anonymous!  According to St. Mark, Jesus’ last words were, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).  You can’t be silent and preach.  According to Luke, Jesus said, “You shall be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8).  You can’t witness and be unknown as to what you believe!  According to St. John, Jesus’ last utterance was, “Follow me” (John 21:22).  You can’t follow Jesus and remain unrecognized!  

Jesus made it clear that His disciples were those with a story to tell, good news to share, a kingdom to proclaim.  Jesus’ followers are to become genuine imitations of Him, students of what He said and doers of what He did.  The Good News of God’s love in Jesus is meant to be shared – just as St. Paul openly shared it, just as it sounded forth from the Thessalonian Christians, and just as it’s expected to be proclaimed by us today.  But it doesn’t stop there.  For those who are genuine imitations of Jesus, their faith is also expected to go forth.  

“For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia,” St. Paul observed, “but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).  As a result of the faithful witnessing of the Thessalonians, the Christian faith had been established to such an extent, that wherever Paul and company went in Macedonia and Achaia, that the preaching of St. Paul was simply a reinforcement.  

The church at Thessalonica was so effective in sharing the faith that Paul had nothing new to preach about.  Later on, he wrote in this same letter, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea: for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets …” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).  The Thessalonians imitated Jesus so genuinely as to suffer and even to die as Jesus suffered and died.  As a result, the Christian faith was established wherever they went.

In his book, No Silent Saints, Carveth P. Mitchell tells of a woman who approached him after church one Sunday with these words, You probably don’t remember me because the last time you saw me I was in bed.”  (That’s probably not the best way to begin a conversation with a pastor!)  The woman continued by reminding him that he had visited one of his members in the hospital who was in the same room with her.  “I have not been a church-goer to any great extent,” she said.  “Oh, I believed in God, but I was pretty vague about it all.”  

She continued, “I was having surgery in the morning, so I was fearful, anxious, and discouraged.  When I started to cry, Mary (Mitchell’s member) said, ‘I’m just getting ready to read my Bible and have you in my prayers.  Maybe you would like to join me.’ When we were finished, she told me a little about what Jesus meant to her, and how her prayers and Bible reading, and church friends gave her strength and courage.  I knew then I had been missing something.

I’ve thought about it – yes, and prayed about it, but I’m not very good at that yet.  Mary invited me to church.  She’s waiting for me now.  I want you to help me find a faith like hers.”  This is a perfect example of what happens when a Christian’s faith goes forth out of the life of an individual or from a faithful congregation.  Practiced faith begets more faith, it creates a desire for faith just like it; it multiplies faith, and it happens because it’s faith that is practiced, demonstrated and nourished in love.  

It’s faith that is strengthened by the Holy Spirit anytime we strive to imitate Christ, love like Christ, live like Christ, and lift up Christ.  It’s faith that takes seriously and joyfully the words of Jesus: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).  It’s the faith that goes forth from all who are genuine imitations of Jesus himself.

Faith like that is given and strengthened by the Holy Spirit because it’s active faith; faith that is involved in the lives of people, faith that is seen in deeds as well as heard in words.  Faith like that reached up to Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and changed a thief into a benefactor.  Faith like that transformed Matthew from a tax collector to a follower of Jesus, changed Simon the fisherman into Peter the rock and remade Saul the Pharisee into Paul the apostle.  

Faith like that made Francis become the patron saint of the poor and caused Luther to reform the church.  In our own day, faith like that caused Mother Teresa to work tirelessly among the poor of India, encouraged Cardinal Wytola to stand up to the Communists in Poland, and sent Billy Graham around the world preaching the gospel.  Obviously, the faith that goes forth from Christians who are genuine imitations of Christ as were the Thessalonians, is faith that is put to work.

Nothing happens by faith until we put our faith to work.  It was St. James who reminded us, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26).  Read closely in Joshua chapter 3, you’ll realize that the Jordan River did not part for the Israelites until the Priests carrying the Arc of the Covenant first put their feet in the water.  They had to believe that God would divide the waters, and they had to put their faith into action.  Christians can do great things when they put their faith to work.

Like St. Paul, and like the Thessalonian Christians, our faith must go forth.  Our faith must be put to work.  Those who are genuine imitations of Jesus are those whose words sound forth, whose faith goes forth, and finally, whose deeds show forth.  Paul describes how the Christian community in Macedonia and Achaia had been impressed by the Thessalonians’ hospitality and by their deeds of worship and service. “For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The Christ-likeness of the Thessalonians showed in their deeds of hospitality, worship, and service.  Paul probably never heard Jesus preach.  Nevertheless, in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians, Paul saw Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount become reality.  “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The Bible is clear, we are saved by grace through faith, but we must also remember that it’s by our deeds that we will all judged.  Jeremiah, one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, had this in mind when he asked, “Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” (Jeremiah 7:17).  This also was the primary point of Jesus’ parable of the last judgment when He welcomed those who would enter the Father’s kingdom: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).  

That which we believe, that which we hold as having the ultimate meaning of life, must be translated into deeds of life.  Sylvanus Phelps understood this perfectly when he wrote in his beloved hymn, “give me a faithful heart, likeness to Thee, that each departing day henceforth may see.  Some work of love begun, some deed of kindness done, some wanderer sought and won, something for Thee.”

Those who want to be genuine imitations of Jesus Christ are therefore those who – like the Thessalonians and St. Paul – above all else imitate Jesus.  This is exactly why Paul urged the Philippians to “have this mind in you which is in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).  To have the mind which was in Christ Jesus means we must imitate Him in all aspects of our lives.  And as we imitate Him more and more, Jesus will become more and more visible in our lives.  The world will see Jesus in us and once again Jesus will talk and act in the world through us.  

Once a little boy needed medical attention, but his widowed mother couldn’t afford to take him to the doctor.  When she left for work, she told him that God would provide some way for him to go to the doctor.  Later that day, a pastor came for the boy to take him to the doctor for treatment.  On the way, the lad asked, “Are you God?”  The minister replied, “Why do you ask that?”  The boy replied, “Well, when my mom left this morning, she said God would see that I got to the doctor.”  The only God, the only Jesus most of the world’s people may ever see is the Christ they see in us as we imitate Jesus, and they will see Him most clearly as we imitate His deeds of love.

The more effectively we imitate Christ by letting our words sound forth, our faith go forth, and our deeds show forth, the more other people will want to imitate Him as well.  That’s what St. Paul and the Thessalonian Christians did, and they made a big difference for Christ in the world of their day.  You and I are called to do the same.  We cannot be an imitator of Jesus and remain anonymous.                   


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