Epiphany 5B 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Today’s sermon was difficult for me to prepare. Not because of a lack of something to say! Quite the opposite, really. There are so many interesting things happening in the scriptures for today that I could hardly decide what to talk about first! There is so much great stuff! We have the grandeur and majesty of God, the healing power of Jesus, the freedom to proclaim the gospel and Paul going to any length to reach people with the good news.
Thursday night, the Lutheran Campus Ministry group had their worship service here and the student doing the homily had decided to focus our attention on the divine love of God. He spoke about the awesomeness of God, the creator of the universe and his love for us that we see and feel in Jesus Christ. Yes, I thought, that is what I want to talk about on Sunday! God, the creator of the universe, the one who stretched out the heavens like a curtain, as Isaiah said, the one compared to whom we are tiny grasshoppers. That great God who loves us. That is the story I want to tell, I thought. The story of the Israelites and the prophet Isaiah’s reminder to them of God’s strength and power.
But then, I remembered the earlier part of my week and what I had originally thought I would talk about today. Monday and Tuesday I was out of town at First Call Theological Education and returned home Tuesday evening. It was snowing and cold and I was so glad to be in my warm home. Around 11pm I thought it was a bit chilly and turned up the heat. About midnight, I realized the heat was not working. By morning it was 54 degrees in my house. I began working on getting things straightened out and, in the end, I had run out of oil for my boiler. I was able to find a space heater at Wal-Mart; the salesman even found one on sale for me. I had several offers of warm places to stay. The repair company helped me on the phone figure out what was wrong and how to restart things on my own after the delivery of oil without any charge for the help. Through all of this, I kept thinking about Jesus taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifting her up. My little problem with the heater was nothing in comparison to a significant illness, but it was a little personal struggle all the same. St Theresa of Avila wrote: Christ has no hands but yours, Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. The lifting up that Christ does now is through the hands of others and others certainly lifted me up during the frustrating and worrying time this week.
There are also all kinds of interesting things in today’s gospel about healing and casting out demons. There is much that we can say about today’s demons and our desperate need for Jesus to silence them. Depression, Illness, Fear. Symbolically, we can say that we have been possessed by the demon of sin and through the baptismal waters, Jesus has exorcised our sin, cast it out.
You can see my problem here—too many interesting things to look at! But then, in rereading the texts, I came across St Paul’s sharp and cutting words, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!” Whoa!! Now that will make you stop and think.
So, how do we proclaim the Gospel?
The Gospel. It means good news—as in, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is, like all news, a story. It is closely related to another word…a Greek word that often strikes fear into the hearts of all Lutherans!! Evangelism. Eu-angel-ion. The Good Message. To proclaim the Gospel, the Good news of Jesus Christ, is to tell the story of God—the Story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension. It is to be an evangelist. And, make no mistake here; we are ALL called to do this very thing. So how do we do this? Paul seemed to think it was pretty important, so let’s think on it a bit.
How do we tell the story of God and of our place in that story? One of the ways we do this every week is through our worship. Scripture would be the obvious place to start. Through the lectionary, we hear the story of God’s people, the Israelites, we sing the psalms which are what would have been a hymnal and prayer book for Jesus. It is here that we hear the story of life in the new Christian churches and the story of the life of Jesus. Our liturgical year also tells the story of Jesus’ entire life beginning with:
Advent—preparing the way of the Lord, Blue paraments and hymns of preparation and waiting.
Christmas—the Son of God born to a Virgin, white paraments celebrating the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the Holy One of God.
Epiphany—the season we are in now, symbols of stars and wise men coming to see Jesus as we celebrate his being a light to all nations.
Lent—walking the way of the cross, purple and black, crosses of ash on our foreheads reminding us of our sin, our mortality, the cost of salvation and discipleship.
Easter—the joyous resurrection! White and Gold! He is risen He is risen indeed!
Pentecost—the coming of the Advocate—the Holy Spirit. Red and images of fire.
Ascension and Christ the King—Jesus sits at the right hand of God, our judge and redeemer, king of the universe.
We tell the story of God through the hymns we sing. How many times have I visited someone in the hospital who has long since forgotten scripture but can remember the words to Amazing Grace. So much of our faith is learned through our hymnody.
In our liturgy as well, we tell the story. God’s forgiveness of us, our reconciling with each other in the peace, the prayers before communion that tell our salvation history—the history of the people of God. And the words of institution are perhaps the climax of the story, with the telling over and over of Jesus’ words from the last supper.
Another way we proclaim the Gospel—tell the story of God—is when we share our faith with children. Now, you may say, pastor we don’t have very many children here. Yet, we probably all come into contact with children in one way or another in our lives. Studies have shown that children learn more about what it means to be a Christian from non-parent adults in their lives than any other source—even a pastor. It is easier to talk to children about Jesus, too, through bible stories and games and crafts. They are so open to learning about it all. But, children also learn by watching what a Christian does. A child in the grocery line sees a man who wears a cross around his neck and learns something about who Christians are by his demeanor and by the way he treats others.
And now for the scariest way: to actually tell another person about your own faith journey. This is, I will say, harder for some than others. But think of this: If you had a friend who loved chocolate and you saw it on sale at the store, would you call your friend and tell them? If you saw a great movie that you loved and was meaningful to you, would you share that with someone else? Of course you would. If Jesus means something to you and the story of your own faith journey or the life of Jesus has meaning for you, would you keep it to yourself? We also proclaim the gospel through our actions, the works of mercy and through our life choices. Reaching out to those in need and giving help to those who suffer. Visiting the lonely and lost. Praying for others near and far. Choosing to live a life that actually shows that we are different because we are Christians.
In the first century, long before anyone came up with evangelism committees or church growth programs, Christians numbered around 25,000. It was a hard time to be a follower of Jesus. Christians were frequently persecuted and executed, often as part of a sporting event in the Roman circus. Over the following 300 years, the number of Christians grew to over 40 million. Not because it was easy to be Christian or because everyone else was a Christian or because you were just born that way. Rather, it was because this Jesus they talked about made such a difference in their lives that they would hold on to that Good News even into bloody death at the hands of a lion or gladiator. How much easier would it be for us to live in ways that show what a difference Jesus makes when we do not have to run for our lives and can, instead, spend our time loving God and his creation?
So how do we at Shepherd of the Hills proclaim the Gospel and tell the Story of Jesus? We reach out to those in need through our support of local care ministries, the Community Table, and praying for others through our prayer chain ministry and in even more ways. What else could we do? Could we find ways to reach out to the children of this area—to teach them about Jesus and his love for them? How about proclaiming the Gospel to one another? We often think about Christian education as being something for children alone, but we remain Christian learners all of our lives. The hymn we are about to sing, I Love To Tell The Story, has as its last verse, “I love to tell the story to those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest”.
What about those in economic distress? How many people looked at that same space heater I was able to purchase this week and, instead of buying it, went home with a heavy heart to a cold home. Those who suffer from domestic violence or who are in some other kind of physical or emotional danger? Or even people in other parts of the country and the world. How is God calling us to proclaim the gospel to them? How can we tell them the Story of Jesus and his love for them?
Today, I have a challenge for all of us. This week, tell the story of Jesus to someone. An easy way: invite them to church and worship with them. Let the worship service open the door to the Gospel. Think about sharing not only the good news about a great place to eat or shop, but also the good news of the love of God. Statistics show that, even here in the Bible belt, each one of us comes into contact each week with at least five people who do not have an active faith life. At least one of them has never been to church in their life. When you do an act of mercy, do so not only because it makes you feel good but because that shows someone else something about who God is. And, if you can, be brave to tell someone how God has lifted you up and silenced the voice of sin or evil in your life. You do not have to do it alone—God will help you. In fact, he will use you as the hands and body of Christ to tell the story of his love.