Monday, July 8, 2013

In One Thing Only

Listening to yesterday's Gospel reading from Luke 10 about Jesus sending the Seventy out and instructing them to "rejoice in one thing only," I was reminded that it was the text for the one and only prepared sermon I ever delivered.  Near the end of my three years of Lutheran seminary, I took Professor Tom Ridenour's Preaching course, not because I ever intended to do any preaching, but because Lutheran preaching is really based on careful and systematic analysis of scripture, with appropriate attention to context and key words, seeking understanding of what the text meant to those who wrote and first heard it and applying that to current situations.  Lutherans are among those who also face the additional troublesome discipline of following the lectionary which forces the preaching pastor to systematically work through most of Holy Scripture during a three year cycle...and then do it all over again.

Dr. Ridenour gave us several texts from which to choose for our soon to be videotaped sermon to the rest of the class.  After the taping, we each met with him, one on one, to review the video and hear his appraisal of our sermons and delivery of same.  I was probably the only student in the class not preparing for a lifetime of such preaching.

Anyway, for whatever it is worth, here are the text and my sermon.  I'm not going to reveal Dr. Ridenour's appraisal of it, but I did get credit for the course.

Rejoice in One Thing Only
Darryl K. Williams – April 19, 2004

A Reading from Luke’s Gospel (10:1-20):
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.  Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!'  And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.  Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you;  cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'  But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'   "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."  The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!"  He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
If you would like to spend a couple of hours reading a good story of life changing significance, curl up with Luke and Acts and read them all the way through.  These books were written by one person and comprise more than 25% of the New Testament.  We talk about Paul so much that it would be easy to get the idea that he wrote most of the New Testament, but he is in second place.  Luke and Acts together are unique in presenting, from the viewpoint of one writer, the life and ministry of Jesus AND the early years of the Church He established and of which we are members today.  The Gospel reading today describes one of the early mileposts in formation of the Church: The sending out of the seventy. 

I would (or at least could, with appropriate reference to Matthew 16:18) argue that the church was born in the fifth chapter of Luke when Jesus said to Peter, in the presence of James, and John, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." That gives us a pretty strong clue about what the church is supposed to be doing.  Peter James and John left everything and followed Jesus.  Jesus took them around the countryside preaching and teaching and healing, and he gathered other disciples who also walked with him and listened to Him and learned from Him as he proclaimed the good news. The church was planted and sprouting like bean sprouts coming forth from fresh moist soil in the warmth of spring sunshine.  People were being caught. 

Jesus was always looking for more people who would leave everything and follow him.  He had high standards, and he did not make it easy for those who were interested.   He didn’t just say, “Come on in.  We will work out the details later.”  In the ninth chapter, the original three have grown to twelve, and we find him sending out the twelve to proclaim the Gospel and to heal.  They apparently stirred up a lot of interest in Jesus because just after that we find Jesus and the twelve surrounded by several thousand who have followed them and are hungry.  Jesus feeds them, and then he makes one of his sobering announcements:  He was going to be rejected and killed and raised on the third day.  I guess most people heard the parts about rejection and killing but that the part about being raised went right over their heads.   Then he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." 

That should bring in the recruits in a hurry.  Follow you where Jesus?  To rejection and death? 

Well, Jesus, I do want to do that, but I have some things I need to do live a little.  I need to bury my father…and I need to say some goodbyes…and put my affairs in order.  You’ll find these objections in chapter 9. 

And Jesus says, "OK, but those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."  And by the way, I can’t guarantee a place to lay your head at night, and you are going to have to put me ahead of your friends and family.

Tough words….High standards.

But still Jesus ends up with seventy who are willing to go.  And that is where we find ourselves in today’s scripture from Luke 10…on the crest of a growing wave which is the church. 

We may read a bit enviously about these seventy.  They knew Jesus…in the flesh…sat at his feet…learned directly from Him…from Jesus himself.  And Jesus gave them power.   He gave them power and authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick.   Man, would I like to have that kind of power and authority…to cast out demons and to cure people of their illnesses.  Man, I’d be going from hospital to hospital just curing people right and left.  I’d cure them and bring them to church.  I’d say, “You are cured.  Come to Ebenezer (My church home at the time).”  All the doctors would be out of business.  There wouldn't be any need for all these new heart centers that are being built.  I’d be in the newspapers and have a book deal and….    Oops.  Sorry.  I guess I lost control there for a minute.  Maybe I am having just a little trouble with that part about denying myself.

Maybe some of the seventy went a bit off the deep end also.  They came back thrilled and rejoicing, telling Jesus of their experiences…that even the demons had submitted to them.  And Jesus has to give them a little admonition about what they should rejoice over.  They should rejoice over one thing only: THE FACT THAT THEIR NAMES ARE WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF LIFE.  There was no lack of follow-up on the part of Jesus, their leader, teacher, coach, organizer, source of authority, spiritual advisor, and….saviour.

Jesus gives some pretty detailed instructions in this Gospel reading.  I wonder if those instructions have any practical meaning for those of us in the church today.   OK, sure, I know it’s a different world.  People don’t walk around in the dust in sandals and carry bags of money and stay in the homes of strangers and cast out demons and cure people anymore.  We have sidewalks and cars and credit cards and Motel Six’s and managed care to take care of all those things.  And of course everybody already knows about Jesus and they have all made their decisions.  It’s up to them, and they have made their choices. 

But surely we can learn something from the instructions Jesus gave?  There must be some general principles there.  If we read and listen carefully we might conclude that we are all called and sent out…not just the pastors.  Isn’t that what Jesus’ whole ministry was about…calling people and challenging them and teaching them and sending them out?  For Jesus it was not just the twelve, and for us, it is not just the pastors. 

We might also conclude from the instructions that Jesus gave that we should pray for help…Jesus says, “Ask the Lord for help…”  right there is verse 2.

If we dig deeply into Jesus' words and look for principles rather than specifics, we might conclude that we should have a sense of urgency and not waste time…that we should be satisfied with little and refuse to be burdened down by material goods…that our focus should be on others….that we should not get discouraged…that we should deliver a consistent and simple message.  All these ideas are contained in the charge of Jesus to the seventy.

Most of those instructions are all about logistics, but what about that consistent and simple message?  Just exactly what was the message he gave them to deliver?  He told them to say only two things, one in verse 5 and one in verse 9.  The first is “PEACE TO THIS HOUSE.”  The second is, “THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS COME NEAR YOU.” 

PEACE is an important theme to the writer of Luke and Acts and remains so in our worship today. 

In the story of the birth of Jesus, the Heavenly Host proclaims, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE among those whom he favors!"   We will sing the same phrase in a few minutes in our hymn of praise. 

When Jesus is taken to the temple for circumcision, he is presented to Simeon who took him in his arms and praised God, saying, "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in PEACE, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."  He probably didn't use the same tune we are going to use for these same words in a few minutes after we share in the body and blood of Jesus. 

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus tells those he has healed to "Go In Peace."  We will hear that same charge at the end of our worship.  And after his death and resurrection, Jesus stands among a group of His followers and says, "PEACE be with you."  And we will say that to each other today as we prepare for Holy Communion.

The meaning of peace in the New Testament is much broader and deeper than harmony among people and absence from war.   According to the prophets, it would be an essential element of the messianic Kingdom…that Kingdom of God which Jesus says has come near.  The word the prophets used was Shalom.  In Christian thought, shalom or peace is nearly synonymous with the salvation that comes from Jesus.  If you listen carefully, you can hear that deep meaning in all those phrases we use in worship.  When we pass the peace during worship, we are not saying, “It’s so good to see you.  Have a nice day.”  We are saying that we are all recipients of the peace that comes from God through Jesus Christ…that we are recipients of His free gift of salvation…that we are experiencing and sharing that gift together…that the Kingdom of God has come near…and that we too, just like the seventy, have only one thing in which to rejoice…that our names are written in the Book of Life. 

Thanks be to God who gives us the strength, as we share together in the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, to continually deny more and more of ourselves and to follow Him more closely.