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Sermon for Sunday, Pentecost 4, 2022

First Reading: Isaiah 66:10-14

10“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; 11that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” 12For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. 13As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 14You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants, and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.”

Psalm 66:1-7

1Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of his name; sing the glory of his praise. 2Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you. 3All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your name.” 4Come now and see the works of God, how wonderful he is in his doing toward all people. 5He turned the sea into dry land, so that they went through the water on foot, and there we rejoiced in him. 6In his might he rules forever; his eyes keep watch over the nations; let no rebel rise up against him. 7Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard …

Second Reading: Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18

1Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5For each will have to bear his own load. 6Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. 7Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

14But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

Gospel: Luke 10:1-20

1After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. 13Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. 16The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” 17The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Something to Brag About

As you know, tomorrow we will celebrate the birth of our democracy.  I believe it was Johnny Carson who defined democracy like this: “Unlike communism, democracy doesn’t mean having just one ineffective political party; it means having two ineffective political parties.  Democracy is welcoming people from other lands, and giving them something to hold onto, usually a mop or a leaf blower.  And, democracy means that with proper timing and scrupulous bookkeeping, anyone can die owing the government a huge amount of money.”

We laugh, of course, but all humor is based in reality, isn’t it?  But, despite all our shortcomings as a country, I hope you will take time out this weekend to give thanks to God for the many, many blessings we enjoy as citizens of this free land.  And with so many freedoms guaranteed to us, it’s hard not to brag about all the good things this country has to offer.  However, we do need to keep our pride in perspective, we do have a good deal of work to do to overcome the failings in this country.  This reminds me of something I heard about that was reported to have happened on live television in Great Britain sometime back.  The incident involved a professional knife thrower.  

Now bear in mind they used the term “professional knife thrower”, not perfect knife thrower.  The incident happened with more than a million British television viewers watching.  Professional knife thrower Jayde Hanson missed his target and accidentally “nicked” his assistant.  A spokeswoman for the show was rightfully disturbed.  “You don’t really expect that kind of thing from a world record-holder,” she said.  To make matters worse, Hanson had recently bragged to a newspaper reporter that, in 11 years of performing, he had only hit his assistant on five occasions.  I’m not certain that, if you’re a professional knife thrower, hitting your assistant with a knife on five occasions is something you should be bragging about.  It might make it difficult to recruit assistants in the future.

We must admit, even if reluctantly, that boasting is endemic to human nature.  We brag about our children and grandchildren.  We boast about our work.  We boast about our athletic accomplishments.  We brag about the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done.  And on this July 4th weekend, we might even brag about the land of our birth.

An American was staying in London.  He was introduced to a man from Edinburgh, Scotland.  The Scotchman asked him, “An’ what country do you belong tae?”

“The greatest country in the world!” replied the American.  “Mon!  So dae I,” replied Scotsman, “but you donna speak like a Scotsman.”  It’s really quite human to brag about your school, your team, your family, and your country.  However, St. Paul said, on one occasion, that there’s only one thing worthy of boasting about and that’s in the cross on which Christ died.  

St. Paul writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  This is indeed an interesting and a remarkable statement for many reasons.  To begin with, Paul had many things about which he could have boasted.   For one, Paul could have boasted about his Roman citizenship.  We think it’s great to be a citizen of this country, but imagine what it meant to be a Roman citizen when Rome ruled most of the known world.  

Being a Roman citizen meant that you had special rights and privileges wherever you were in the Empire.  Roman citizens couldn’t be imprisoned without a trial, nor could they be whipped or crucified.  We’re told that Simon Peter was crucified upside down.  St. Paul, on the other hand, couldn’t be crucified because he was a Roman citizen.  That’s just one thing he could have boasted about.  Or, he could have gloated about his religious upbringing.  Nobody had a richer background in the Jewish faith than Paul.  

In Philippians chapter 3, Paul notes that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel; of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law blameless.”  But then Paul adds in this same passage, “Whichever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3-8).  Paul at one point in his life had a lot to place his pride in, Roman citizenship, religiosity, education, affluence, after all, Paul studied the law in Jerusalem under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  That’s like going to Yale or Harvard for the serious student of the Jewish faith.

No doubt Paul faced serious intellectual challenges in such an atmosphere, studying under this renowned scholar.  But it paid off.  In his writings Paul shows not only a thorough understanding of the wisdom of his own people, but also the thinking of the philosophical Greeks.  His exceptional education is reflected in his letters.  Can you think of any passage out of any book that surpasses in wisdom and knowledge as that of 1 Corinthians 13?  “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing . . .” (1-2) 

Paul was indeed a man of extraordinary credentials and exceptional talent.  He could have boasted about many things.  But quite simply he writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .”  What a thoroughly remarkable statement.  This statement is remarkable for another reason; the cross was an incredibly offensive symbol.  Think about it.  A cross was a symbol of shame in those days.  

Criminals died on crosses, not decent folk.  Suppose that instead of a cross, we hoisted an electric chair and put it on our wall behind the Altar?  Or a gallows?  Or an IV bag, in honor of lethal injection!  No wonder Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1 that the cross is foolishness to both the Jews and the Greeks (vs. 23).  Isn’t it interesting that the Romans considered death on a cross far too cruel for their own citizens?  Even they considered crucifixion barbaric.  It was the extreme form of punishment imposed by Roman law for the execution of slaves, criminals, and revolutionaries.  That Jesus was crucified like a common criminal would not endear Him to the proper people of the Roman world.

For Jews, the cross was an object of shame for two reasons.  First, the very fact that the Romans used crucifixion to execute thousands of Jews during the conquest of their land meant it was a symbol of revulsion.  The second reason it would be difficult for the Jews to accept the cross was that the Jews connected crucifixion to a passage in Deuteronomy, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight.  Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (21:22-23).  For the Jews, to hang on a tree didn’t mean you were the Savior of the world, it meant that you were under a curse from God.  

It’s truly interesting that Christians would adopt the cross as the symbol of the faith.  Of course, there aren’t many people who are offended by the cross today.  Indeed, what concerns me is that far too many people today don’t take the cross that seriously.  Anytime I see a cross around someone’s neck, I wonder, how much power does it exercise in their lives?  Do they understand that the cross signifies salvation from sin, that God Himself paid the price instead of you and me?  

Most people today don’t even consider themselves to be sinners.  Nowadays we make mistakes, not sins.  Think about this, would somebody die on a cross to save us from mere mistakes?  I don’t think so.  Maybe it would be good if the cross was more reviled today.  At least it would mean that it was being taken seriously.  It’s remarkable that Paul would pray that he might boast about only one thing, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s statement is remarkable for yet another reason.  It’s a sign of how seriously Paul took the cross.  A lot of people seem blasé about the meaning of the cross, but that cannot be said about Paul.  He was passionate on this one subject, more passionate, perhaps than anyone who has ever lived.  What did the cross mean to Paul that made him so passionate about it?  For starters, it meant salvation. 

How much does God love us?  Look at the cross and you’ll see.  How desperate is our situation without Christ?  Look at the cross and you’ll see.  When Paul looked at the cross, he saw God’s love poured out.  He saw his sins forgiven.  He saw that he had been set free from the bondage of sin and death.  A woman named Kim Drake wrote to Reader’s Digest sometime back to say that her mom was getting swamped with calls from strangers.  The reason?  A medical billing service had launched an 800 number that was identical to hers.

When she called to complain, they told her to get a new number.  “I’ve had my number for twenty years,” she pleaded.  “Couldn’t you change yours?”  They refused, so Kim’s mom told the billing service, “Fine.  From now on I’m going to tell everyone who calls that their bill is paid in full.”  The billing company got a new number the next day.  When St. Paul looked at the cross, he saw his bill paid in full.  He knew he could never satisfy the demands of the law.  He was a sinner, just as you and I are sinners.  But the cross had set him free.  For Paul, the cross meant salvation.

The second thing the cross meant to St. Paul was a changed life.  Notice his words: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  When St. Paul looked at the cross, he didn’t see only Christ crucified, he also saw his old nature crucified.  Before he met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, he was a man who was legalistic, judgmental, and cruel.  In a sense Paul could be seen as a first century terrorist.

Recall who it was holding the coats of those that stoned Stephen, it was a young Paul.  How is that any different from modern day extremists who cry out, “Death to the infidels”?  Paul was willing hunt down, extradite, incarcerate, and put early Christians to death, simply because they didn’t believe what he believed.  Paul was horrified at what he had been.  At the same time, however, he knew in his heart that that man no longer existed.  In the theological language of some Christians, he had not only been saved, but he had been sanctified.  That is, his debt had not only been paid by God, but he had been transformed inwardly.

More than anything else in the world, St. Paul wanted to know God and be known by God.  That’s what being a disciple is all about.  Some people think of salvation as merely a ticket to heaven.  Dear friends, heaven is just an added bonus.  The important thing about being a child of God is for us to know God and to be known of God.  In Paul’s rich understanding of our faith, this could only be made possible by the cross.  Bible teacher Beth Moore tells the story of a woman named Donna who was a missionary to South America.  

Donna wasn’t like most missionaries of her time who were invariably polished, clean, and very, very good and proper.  Donna had had a rough life.  She didn’t feel very good about herself.  One day Donna watched weavers working to produce a beautiful new rug.  The first thing the weavers did was to shear the sheep.  Then after washing the fresh wool, the weavers sorted the wool into two piles.  Over here was a small pile of perfect white wool.  The weavers would take that perfect white wool and weave it just as it was.  In a second pile lay the flawed, tarnished, stained wool.  

The weavers took the flawed wool and dyed it many colors.  Then, with great skill, they began weaving the flawed wool.  Weaving 60,000 knots every square meter they took that newly dyed wool and produced magnificent wool rugs.  “All of a sudden Donna, scarred, stained, flawed, never living up to her own expectations said to herself, that’s what God can do for me.”  She suddenly saw that God could take all her flaws, all her stains, all her impurities and make the dye that would turn her life into something beautiful.  That transforming dye was the blood which Jesus shed on the cross.

Paul looked at the cross and he saw Christ dying for the sins of the world, but he also saw there the man Paul used to be, crucified as well.  He had become a new person in Christ Jesus.  His flawed, scarred life had been transformed.  We must never forget that element in our faith, the element of a changed life.  Pastor Tom Rietveld notes that in the United States, we have a nickname for tow trucks.  We call them “wreckers.”  However, in England they’re not called wreckers, they’re called “Recovery.”  It’s interesting, notes Pastor Rietveld, “The same vehicle, the same function, but a totally different perspective.  We say, ‘There goes a wrecker.’  They say, ‘Here comes recovery.’”  The cross is all about recovery.

St. Paul knew that, because of the Cross of Christ, his life had been recovered and radically changed.  That’s why there was only one thing Paul boasted about, although he could have boasted about many things.  The cross was an offensive symbol to the world, but to Paul it was everything.  He knew that without the cross, he would have been lost.

We need to take the time to ask ourselves, what does the cross mean in my life?  Does it mean salvation?  Does it mean a changed life?  Or is it merely a decoration, a trinket on a necklace?  What is it that you and I boast about?


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