January 2010 Sermons:
Can you imagine what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN, on those camels in Bethlehem? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time at the stable, helped to deliver the baby, swept and dusted, made a casserole, fed the animals, brought practical gifts, and brought peace on earth!
Seriously, there are surprises for us, when we look more deeply into this story from Matthew’s gospel. There are details we have missed all our lives. We sing about three kings who followed the Bethlehem star and carried gifts. Did you know that these men — and they were definitely men — weren’t kings? And I have another disappointment for you. Nothing in the Bible says there were three wise men, either. We get the number, “three,” from the three gifts! There may have been two, or ten, or even twenty wise men. The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were.
Historians believe that the wise men who followed the star were astrologers. They were pagans from Persia—not faithful servants of God. The Jews of Jerusalem had no use for astrology. Why would Herod want the opinions of these magicians, these dabblers in the occult?
In the ancient world, the occurrence of a star or a constellation of stars was associated with the birth of an important person. King Herod the Great knew this. He hired the astrologers to find out what the star of Bethlehem might mean. Herod was a cruel man, but not an unintelligent man. He knew that, when we are close to something, we can miss its meaning. Herod was also a micromanager. Being that kind of a person, he had to investigate this star. Was Isaiah’s prophecy about to be fulfilled? He had to know. The cruel king wasn’t popular with Rome, and the Jews hated him. The people of the Near East had been in a state of heightened expectation that a new ruler would overthrow the Romans. Herod was a puppet king of the Roman emperor. The last thing he wanted was to be deposed by a ruler predicted by the prophet Isaiah. If that king were born in Judea, he would be a threat to Herod’s power.
What was Isaiah’s prophecy? Isaiah had lived half a millennium before the appearance of the star of Bethlehem. And five hundred years before he was born, in the days of David and Solomon, Judah had been the wealthiest kingdom in the eastern Mediterranean. But, since 500 B.C., the Hebrews had been enslaved by the brutal King Nebuchadnezzar’s army. Today’s Old Testament reading is a prophecy, delivered by Isaiah when his people, the Hebrews, were slaves. In the Old Testament verses John read to us, Isaiah gives his people good news: that their light would come. A new king would save them and cast their captor, the Babylonian emperor, into shadow.
What the wise men discovered, on their fact-finding mission for Herod, was surprising. The star of Bethlehem rested over a cow stable, not a palace. The newborn Messiah was the lowly son of a carpenter and his teenage bride. This child was the king foretold by Isaiah, they realized. The astrologers were moved by God’s light, as it shone in that stable. They were overwhelmed with joy. And they knew nothing would be the same again for them. They felt the kind of joy we feel when we have discovered the right place for us to be.
The wise men—who had never heard that there is one God in charge of the universe—were deeply changed by their visit to the stable. Because these astrologers had been warned in a dream not to go back to the palace of Herod, they high-tailed it out of Bethlehem and went the other way. They never returned to Jerusalem.
We never see the wise men again in the Bible. And, thank heaven, Herod completely missed the Messiah! In his paranoia, the king misinterpreted the signs of God. In those days, there had been so little brightness in Judea. Herod had feared losing power so much that he killed his wife and son and all the male babies in the kingdom. According to history, Herod’s kingship was the opposite of Jesus’ kingship. He was everything that Jesus was not: Hateful, destructive, and filled with murderous fear. The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, once remarked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. The wise men were outsiders in Judea, but they recognized Jesus more fully than His own people did. And they were wise enough to see deeper meaning in that star. To go back to Herod would be to betray their joy in this child’s birth.
Today we celebrate Communion in the liturgical season of Christmas. The twelve days of Christmas end on Wednesday, when Epiphany begins. In some countries, especially in Mexico, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas. When the Christian church uses the word, “Epiphany,” to designate a season, it means God’s power is being made visible in Christ. During Epiphany, we read some of our favorite Bible stories –Jesus’ baptism, the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. The story of the wise men is the first Epiphany story. The star is a sign that God is shouting to the people of the world, “Know that this child is ‘God With Us!’”
Christ is our host, as we gather for worship this morning. We can see Him when we share the bread and cup of Communion. You saw Him last week when the Sunday School children presented their nativity play. You saw Him last fall, when the waters of baptism splashed over babies’ foreheads. We can see Him when we pray together for friends and family, and when we give offerings for “Angel 34” and for “Christmas Joy.” We hear His voice when we sing familiar hymns.
But we have a problem. Jesus is with us, but Herod is still out there. He’s the evil that exerts its power in our world. All around us, co-workers and neighbors pursue the gods of sensation and greed and judgment. Herod is around us when Christmas joy turns to consumerism. We store up gifts we don’t need. Then we give them, the next Christmas, to other people who don’t need them, while millions freeze and starve. I hate to admit it, but sometimes, in my self-absorption, my rush to use a coupon before expires or to grab a bargain, I miss the Messiah at Christmas. Those are the times when Herod takes over in my heart. Herod was in the hearts of those people on Long Island, on Black Friday, 2008, when they trampled a Walmart employee, in their frenzy to buy gifts at bargain prices.
Hear the good news! God is in control of our messy world. But the ways of Herod must die in us, in order for the ways of the baby Jesus to grow in us. The wise men didn’t miss the lesson of the Christ Child. They learned that God calls forth our care and concern and love. God’s power can come like a newborn child, into the life of every Christian at every moment. In the coming year, let us not miss the Messiah!
Let us pray.
ETERNAL GOD, WE THANK YOU FOR THIS TIME TOGETHER WITH YOUR WORD. WE GATHER LIKE THE WISE MEN TO SEEK YOUR SON, JESUS CHRIST. WE PRAY THAT, AS WE LIVE OUT THE DAYS OF THIS NEW YEAR, YOU WILL HELP US TO LOOK BEYOND WHERE WE HAVE BEEN. TEACH US TO FOLLOW THE STAR WHEREVER IT LEADS. IN HIS NAME, Amen.
David E. Leininger, “The Gospel by Starlight,” Lectionary Tales from the Pulpit: Year C (Lima, Ohio: CSS, 2009), 40-41.
Mark Sargent, “The Gift of the Magi,” http://day1.org, January 2, 2005.
Carlos Wilton, “Epiphany of the Lord,” Lectionary Preaching Workbook for Year C (Lima, OH: CSS, 2006), 54.
O. Wesley Allen, “A Sermon on Matthew 2,” www.goodpreacher.com, December 24, 2009.
Today, we celebrate “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, and we’ve taken a big leap forward in the church year. Just last week, I preached about the wise men and their visit to the baby Jesus. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus has aged thirty years from last week.
Jesus is being baptized at the Jordan River. He comes full of expectations. His baptism will end His life as a carpenter and private citizen. A little bird comes from heaven to tell Jesus how precious He is in God’s sight. Nothing motivates a person like encouragement from the boss! Not to mention one’s father.
God calls Jesus to leave His job and go out on the road to build the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit reveals that He is the Son of God. What a powerful sense of responsibility Jesus feels! God has chosen Him, personally, to give the Jews the good news they hunger for. There are important lessons in the story of the baptism of the Lord, for church leaders. We’re chosen by God, too.
If I had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, it would be, "Do not be afraid." That’s what the angels said to the shepherds when Jesus was born: "Do not be afraid." It is the first thing the angel said on Easter morning: "Do not be afraid." It is what the risen Christ said to his disciples: "Be not afraid. I am with you always."
In the Presbyterian Church USA, every ordained officer is considered a minister. Ministry can be overwhelming in the best of times! Our vows and constitutional questions include some pretty heavy promises. We promise to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ. We promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church. When we are called to ministry, we need to rise above our fears of conflict, of discipline, of making mistakes, and of being inadequate.
It’s one thing to say we aren’t afraid, and it’s another thing to believe it. We have good reason to be afraid. Church leadership can be challenging. In the recession, many people have seen their savings evaporate, and even more people have lost their jobs. Every day the news is filled with stories of terrorist bombs—the latest one, on a Continental airlines plane in Detroit on Christmas Day. Yesterday I read the sad story of a Chinese graduate student, who was arrested after making an unintentional mistake at Newark Airport. Meaning no harm to anyone, he walked past the security checkpoint to kiss his girlfriend goodbye before she boarded a plane. How frightening for this man, to learn that all flights were cancelled that evening because he had missed seeing a sign, and had inadvertently stepped into a forbidden area. How sad that our fears of terrorism have come to this! Even in public schools like Allen High School, police guard the hallways, and students are afraid of violence.
We are living in a confusing and chaotic world where we can lose our life or livelihood in a matter of minutes. The prophet Isaiah confidently tells his people, “Be not afraid.” Isaiah lived five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, but he knew that God isn’t a distant deity. "‘Do not be afraid,’ says the Lord. ‘I created you. I formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’" In the Great Flood, in the book of Genesis, God had sent many waters to wash the earth clean. Isaiah knew how God had kept his chosen people safe then, and had promised by the sign of the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by water again.
The God of Israel has always called us by name: Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Jacob, Samuel, Mary. This is the God who walks along the shore and calls fishermen by name: "Peter, Andrew, John, follow me." Today, Jesus is calling our new officers by name: Pat, Gail, John, Tammy, Bill, Barbara and Doug, follow me!”
This is the God who knows your name, who knows the number of the hairs on your head. He is the God who, even when the seas roar, listens for your voice, hears your cry, and says, "Do not be afraid. I know you. I have called you by name. You are mine."
So, as Isaiah tells us, God says to us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…I have called you by name, and you are mine.”
What does it mean, to have God passing through the waters with us? We need not fear the demands of church leadership. God knows our names! His Holy Spirit energizes us to be productive. Presbyterian pastor Thomas Long tells about a writer who came up with a good idea, back in 1976. "Our nation is two hundred years old," he thought. "I’ll bet I can find someone living today, who is old enough that when a child, he or she met someone who was then old enough to have been alive at the founding of the nation. If there is such a person now living, he or she is a living link to the founding of our nation." And, sure enough, the writer found such a person. The link to our founding fathers and mothers was a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was over 100 years old in 1976. Mr. Ledford remembered, when he was a little boy in the 1870’s, being taken by wagon to see his great-great grandmother. She was then over a hundred years old herself. She had been a little girl when George Washington had been inaugurated as the first American president.
When the writer asked Burnham Ledford what he recalled about his great-great grandmother, he said he remembered being taken into her house. She was blind and very feeble. She sat in a chair in the corner of a dark bedroom. "We brought your great-great grandson to see you," Burnham’s father told her. The old woman turned toward the sound of his voice. She reached out with long, bony fingers and said in an ancient, cracking voice, "Bring the boy here."
"They had to push me toward the old woman," Mr. Ledford remembered. "I was afraid. But when I got close to her, she reached out her hands and began to stroke my face. She felt my eyes and my nose, my mouth and my chin. She pulled me close to her and held me tight. She seemed satisfied. “‘This boy’s a Ledford,’ she said, ‘I can feel it. I know this boy. He’s one of us.’"
When we are baptized, and when we are ordained and installed as church officers, God holds us close and says, "I know this person. I called this one by name. This person is one of us. Fear not." Officers in the First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua are part of a long spiritual tradition. God knew Reverend Little by name. God knew the Presbyterian elders who founded this church by name. God knew the names of the people whose names are on these stained glass windows. He knows our names, too.
Luke uses very few words to describe the baptism of Jesus. But those words are inspirational for our ministry as church leaders. We are called to identify with all God’s children. We are called to depend on God in prayer for the strength to lead. We come here on Sunday mornings to drink deeply of the presence of God. We are the beloved of Christ. This is the blessing of our life together.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, as Jesus stood in Jordan’s muddy waters, we come with the unclear and muddy things in our lives, to worship God. As Jesus left the Jordan to give His life to God, we want to leave here today with a renewed sense of your presence. O God, as the seas roar and the winds howl and the earth shakes, turn your ear to us. Guide us and help us to be faithful. Come as you always come, to comfort and to save. Prepare us, we pray, for our future in ministry. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Matthew 28:5, Matthew 28:10, Matthew 28:20.
Genesis 6:5 through 9:17.
Isaiah 43:1, Isaiah 43:2.
Thomas Long, “Called by Name,” www.goodpreacher.com, January 2004.
I had been working on a joyful sermon about the miracle Jesus performed at a wedding. That is, my sermon was supposed to be joyful-- until the earthquake hit Haiti on Tuesday.
I need to tell you one of the practical aspects of writing weekly sermons. I have to come up with a sermon title on Monday, so the bulletin can go into production by Tuesday. The hymns are picked on Tuesday morning. They can be changed in the middle of the week, but the sermon is more than half-written by then. Sermon titles—which aren’t a big deal—can’t be changed after Wednesday without re-running the bulletin. Those are some of the things pastors worry about.
I remember when the World Trade Center disaster happened on a Tuesday. It was my first day in Seminary. I know that many pastors had to make major changes after their bulletins were already done, in order to preach about 9/11. I thought about doing the same thing this past week. Some local pastors had picked “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” for their first hymn today, and then switched to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” after the earthquake occurred on Tuesday.
The first hymn I had picked for today, mentioned “He who saves you by His grace.” It didn’t have the word, “Alleluia” or anything about joy in it. WHEW! The Sunday bulletin was safe. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Today, I’m still going to preach about Jesus changing water into wine. The disaster in Haiti gave me a new perspective on this story. After the terrible happenings in Port-au-Prince, the miracle at Cana speaks to me, more than ever, about the ways we use our time. I want to focus on verse four of the gospel reading. Jesus says to Mary, “My hour has not yet come!” This sermon is about responding to NOW and living for today. It’s about the Son of God as a thirty-year-old adult child, and His very smart Mom!
Weddings were even more important in Jesus’ time than they are to us now. They were a window on the future for these poor Galileans. Imagine living in the household of a Judean tradesman in the first century. There was no electricity and no running water. Every job had to be done today and again tomorrow. Each morning, one of the women of the household would put a stone jar on her head and go to the well at the center of town to draw water for the family. All the other women would gather at the well and draw water, too. They would stop and buy the food they would eat that day. There was no refrigeration, so they had to stock up again the next day. The ancient Judeans couldn’t go to the Giant and buy a week’s worth of groceries.
We don’t have to do that. We are a future-oriented culture. Our society continually pushes us into tomorrow. We complain that we can’t buy gloves at the Mall after February because beach towels are already on display. We don’t like to see Halloween decorations on people’s lawns right after school starts. But in our personal lives, aren’t we always ahead of ourselves? Who do you know that hasn’t made Christmas travel plans by Thanksgiving? I’m always writing things on my calendar that I have to do next week, or next month, or next year. Sometimes I wonder how I get anything done today.
For these first century Galileans, there was only today—except when it came to weddings. Weddings were the time when people in the villages could celebrate tomorrow. “There is a future for our family," they could say.
Jesus went to this wedding with his disciples. According to the story, before all the party was done the wine gave out. The story says that Jesus found six jars, and He had them filled to the brim with water. He made hundred and twenty gallons of wine out of that water. That is a lot of wine!
The story says that the wine ran out and Jesus’ mother pleaded with Him to save the bride and groom from being embarrassed. Hospitality in the Near East was a sacred duty. Running out of wine was a terrible social faux pas.
Did you notice the dialogue that takes place between Jesus and His mother in this story? Jesus doesn’t seem to want to help! He is abrupt with Mary. He calls her, “Woman!” He says, "My hour has not yet come." How you would feel if you were Mary? What does she think when Jesus says, "What concern is it to us?" But Mary isn’t just a pushy Mom. She knows what Jesus can do, and she has faith in Him. She tells the servants, “Do what He tells you!”
Mary is telling her adult son, Jesus, “Pay attention, my Son! Someone is in trouble!” and Jesus’ response is: “Don’t bother me with this right now!” We’re seeing human side of Jesus! We hate interruptions, too. But the next thing we know, Jesus has taken charge and rescued the wedding. What might our world have turned out like, if Jesus had gotten used to saying, “Not my problem”? What if Jesus had said, “Not a good time for me!” to every person wanting to be healed? He knew He had only three years to get to Jerusalem and to start Christianity and to change the world! But that IS how He changed our world-- by stopping and taking charge and listening and helping people.
Jesus’ turning of the water into wine is the first great sign of Christ’s glory. Miracles happen when a humble servant of God moves past saying, “It’s not my time," and gets involved with helping others. This week, I was working ahead on the sermon and feeling well organized. Then on Tuesday morning, people in this congregation began emailing me and asking me how we were going to help the people in Haiti. I had to pay attention! It was MY time.
My first response was—let me get this worship planning work done first and then I will do a little research on Haiti. But then I realized that my goal here is not to be your time manager. You called me to help people in our congregation, and to help you to help people in need. That’s even more important than preaching a well-constructed sermon, or having a catchy sermon title and appropriate hymns. Even though all those things are important, too!
Let me tell another story of a leader in our own time. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. finished his course work for his Ph.D. and accepted his first call, at a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. Not long after he moved to Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. The African-American community needed someone to lead a boycott of city bus companies. Other ministers knew that this boycott would be risky. The Reverend King had every reason in the world to say, "It is not the right time for me. I have four little children. I have a dissertation to finish. I have a congregation that doesn’t know me yet. If I lead the boycott, what will that do to my congregation? What will it do to my family? It is not a good time. It will not work. This is not the time for me to be pushed out in front of a civil rights movement.” I wonder what happened that moved the Reverend King from saying, "Not my time," to saying "Yes. I will lead the boycott!"
How are you experiencing Jesus in your life? If we are not as close to Jesus as we’d like to be, our problem may be that our calendars are too full. Or our priorities are off. Maybe we are concentrating on time management. Are we saying, “I’m too busy, my career is just starting, the semester is just beginning, my family needs me, I’m not educated, I have health issues, I’m too old, I’m too young?” We come to know God in our lives when we serve our brothers and sisters as the church. People sitting on the sidelines are less likely to come to know Him. We need to continually ask ourselves, what are we all about here?
A long time ago, Jesus was confronted with a family crisis at a wedding. He shrugged it off. Not His problem! Our world has been forever different, because Jesus changed His mind that night, and changed water into wine. Fifty years ago, a man named Martin said "yes," to taking charge of a dangerous project. And now, God is asking us to experience Jesus Christ and to share His abundant love with one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is forty-three percent children under age twelve. Will we say, "It is not my time!" or will we follow when we hear His call?
Let us pray.
Almighty God, Too often we think we don’t have enough time, enough knowledge, or enough faith to serve you. Teach us your abundant love and show us how sure your promises are. We pray these things in Jesus’ name, AMEN
“O Worship the King,” The Worshiping Church (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1990), 95.
E. David Leininger, “Water into Wine,” Lectionary Tales From the Pulpit, Series VI, Cycle C (Lima, OH:CSS, 2009),48.
Eric Foner and others, eds. The Reader’s Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 618.
I Corinthians 12:12-31.
Was there a train set in your childhood? There was a wonderful one in mine. My uncle created a village under his Christmas tree that I will never forget. Uncle Les was a policeman, but in his spare time he created wooden toys. He carved a scale model of a town for us kids. It was perfect in every detail. I wasn’t really interested in the Lionel train set that went around the tree. The train set was the least important thing for my uncle, too. But we all loved that little village! The town had about a hundred tiny metal people. It had houses with windows you could see inside. Every house was different. When I was five or six years old, I wished I could shrink to three inches tall. I wanted to live in one of those little wooden houses from the Christmas tree village—all year ‘round.
That Christmas tree town was my vision of heaven. It had cars parked on blacktopped streets in front of the houses. There were perfect buses and streetcars. There were sidewalks covered with a mixture of sand and glue that looked like cement. The grass was sand, painted green. (Astroturf hadn’t been invented yet!) The main street had a church with stained glass windows. There was a park where metal people sat on benches, with their legs bent. They sat looking out on a pond with real water. There was a mill wheel that went around and around. The railway station had a platform where people stood, waiting for the train. There were even smoke pills my uncle would put in the smokestack of the engine to make smoke come out of the train!
That village was handmade and built to scale. Nothing was plastic. Nothing was store-bought, except for the train set. Everything was in perfect proportion. The train never went off the tracks or collided with the detached cars. The street lights never seemed to burn out. Not like the real world!
My Uncle Les died twenty-five years ago. His Christmas tree town is no more, but it is a wonderful childhood memory. I still have a color photograph of it. I don’t think children see train sets like that anymore. And that is a shame!
I hope the building of scale models isn’t a lost art. Replicas help us to learn how things work. Did you ever notice how children stand for what seems like hours, looking at scale models in museums? The mill wheel in the Christmas village was small enough so I could see the water turning it around. It was one of my first science lessons.
Scale models give us a way to think about how we relate to God. From reading the creation stories in Genesis, we know that the creator, God, made us in His image. Can you imagine yourself as a scale model of some part of what God is? We are small, imperfect replicas of God. Think about that this week. Say to yourself, “I am a scale model of God!” Notice how it influences the way you talk, the way you act, the way you drive.
The Apostle Paul, in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, invites us to think of a Christian congregation as a scale model of heaven. God gives different gifts to each of us. People in a church have so many abilities—preaching, caregiving, prophecy, serving, administration, musical performance, creative communication, and many more. We have all of those gifts here. Some of our gifts have yet to be activated by the Holy Spirit. I didn’t understand, or use, or even think about, my gifts for ministry until I was forty-five years old.
It’s a challenge to work together when everybody is different. I, for one, am glad we aren’t identical like the little metal people under my uncle’s Christmas tree. Being human is a lot more interesting!
As the church, we are Christ’s presence on earth. It’s not just that we try to be. We are, right now! The church, as the body of Christ needs all its parts. No part of Christ’s body is more important than any other. The hand isn’t superior to the foot, and the eye isn’t better than the ear, as Paul writes.
In this reading, the Apostle Paul is concerned about one specific church—the new congregation in Corinth, which isn’t in good shape at all. It seems as though there are disputes. The disputants are cliques that seem to be based on how much money people have. The cliques celebrate communion separately from each other. There are power struggles going on in that church. Today, we might say the Corinthian congregation is dysfunctional. That body of Christ is lopsided, but it is still the body of Christ. And notice something-- Paul doesn’t write to them, “You OUGHT to be the body of Christ.” He doesn’t say, “Someday if you are good, you might BECOME the body of Christ.” He says, right in the beginning of that letter, “You ARE the body of Christ.” Paul makes it clear that no one in the Corinthian congregation is exempt from being a giving part of the body. He makes it VERY clear that no spiritual gift is more important than any other. He expects the Corinthians to live Christ-like lives. He wants to see a scale model of heaven the next time he visits Corinth; make no mistake about it!
My uncle kept on working on his train village, for years, and it got better every Christmas. He kept adding houses, and upgrading his train set, and using up more smoke pills! God keeps working with us as the church. I like to think of our Creator tinkering with each little scale model of heaven, so all the parts of every congregational body will work together. It’s not all up to us. As a relative newcomer, I would say that our church, as a body, is in excellent condition.
As we work together to glorify God, the Spirit keeps on inspiring us. God the Creator continues to tinker with us as long as we live. It’s not all up to us, and that’s good news. How do we get our tune-ups? It happens when we pray, it happens in worship. It happens when we talk together at meetings and when we read the Bible. We are the body of Christ! Our church is a scale model of God’s kingdom, right here on earth. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, by your grace and love, you have called us to be the church. We pray that you will give us the gifts we need in order to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to show forth the signs and signals of your kingdom. In His name, Amen.
I Corinthians 12:6,11.
I Corinthians 12:27.
I Corinthians 13:1-13
I’m sure that many of you chose First Corinthians, chapter thirteen, as the scripture reading at your weddings. John and I did! What most brides and grooms don’t realize is that Paul’s “ode to love” isn’t just about love between a man and a woman. It’s about love between people who are radically different. It’s about love that hurts, love that stretches our spiritual muscles, love that we struggle and strain to practice in our lives. Love that nearly kills us! It’s the kind of love that can come only from God.
Paul wrote this letter almost two thousand years ago, in his own language. The meaning of Paul’s Greek words is hard to find in English translation. Some of you know several languages well. So you know how inaccurate a translation from, say, French to English, can be. Here’s an example. The expression, “Cela ne fait rien,” in French, has a different meaning from the English sentence, “that doesn’t matter,” even though that’s the way we would translate it. Modern English speakers who say, “Whatever!,” or “Let’s not go there!” are closer to the French “Cela ne fait rien.” They’re saying, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter, so let’s drop it.”
For several years I wished I were Methodist or Baptist, so I could drop my Hebrew or Greek classes! They were really hard. The PCUSA is the only denomination that requires its pastors to read Hebrew and Greek. What Paul says to the Corinthians in his “ode to love” is easier to understand in Greek.
It’s helpful to understand the world in which these Corinthians lived. They were like a Christian island in a pagan society. People all around them made a virtue of selfishness, and looking out for number one. Their leaders didn’t understand Jesus’ sacrificial love. They had twisted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper into a country club dinner. The rich people got together and ate good food. They socialized with other wealthy folks and called it a sacrament. The poor people of the congregation showed up after the wealthy ones had gone home. There was nothing left for them but bread and water and used dishes. In his first letter to this congregation, Paul tells how shocked he is at their snobbery of their leaders. This is an important teaching moment. Paul uses the Greek word, agape, to explain the kind of Christlike love he expects. Remember, the Corinthian Christians didn’t have the gospels yet because those books hadn’t been written. They knew very little about Jesus and the way He had lived. Paul had to spell out what self-sacrifice looked like.
In English, we use the word, “love,” to describe desire, for caring for your children, for charity and for self-sacrifice. Agape was mistranslated, back in 1611, as “charity” in the King James Version of the Bible. The Greek word for charity is philia, not agape. We say the Greek word, philia, today is part of the name, Philadelphia—the “City of Brotherly Love.” Charity and self-sacrifice were very different to ancient Greeks.
When Paul writes about agape, he describes a kind of love that is harder to achieve than philia. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to His disciples, He explained sacrifice for the sake of others. It was a harsh, demanding story for His followers to hear—and its harshness is foreshadowed in today’s reading from Luke. You’ll remember, the priests and scribes hated the Samaritans because they saw them as pagans—and vice versa. Loving people we don’t like, people who have hurt us, even people who annoy or disgust us, is tough. It’s a gift that can only come from God. It’s the kind of love we have to pray for. It’s the kind of love which “(was) poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us” when we became His children at our baptisms. If we have agape in our hearts, we can obey Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you should also love one another!”
In today’s gospel passage, we hear the first sermon Jesus ever delivers. Even the folks in His hometown are shocked. We can see how challenging a preacher Jesus will be. He insists on agape from His disciples. He doesn’t want to make them feel good about themselves. Sermons like this one won’t make Him popular.
What does the concept of agape look like, as Jesus lives it out? The best example is His sacrifice on the cross. Most people don’t reach that level of martyrdom. But ordinary folks just like us can learn to practice agape when nobody is looking but God.
I recently read a modern Good Samaritan story, told by a Presbyterian pastor in California. This pastor loves to shop in Nordstrom’s department store during the Christmas season. The store has very expensive merchandise on display. For her—the pastor is an older woman like me— going to the top floor of Nordstrom’s, where they sell the evening gowns, is like visiting a costume exhibition in a museum. For her, ten-thousand-dollar gowns are for Michelle Obama or the winners of the Golden Globe awards—not for middle aged pastors. But they’re still fun to look at.
On her Christmas visit to Nordstrom’s, the pastor was looking at evening dresses, when the elevator doors opened. Out stepped a woman who didn’t belong such in a posh place. Some might have called her a “bag lady.” Her clothes were dirty. Her hair was matted and filthy. She had a strong odor. Her stockings were rolled down to her ankles. She stood by the elevator, holding a very dirty gym bag. It was obvious that this customer couldn’t afford anything at Nordstrom’s—not even a scarf, let alone an evening dress!
The pastor thought a security guard might appear and usher the woman out. But that didn’t happen. Instead, a saleswoman walked over and asked, "May I help you, madam?" The woman said, "Yeah! I wanna buy a dress!" "Any particular kind of dress?" the saleswoman asked kindly. "A party dress!" the woman answered. "Well, you’ve come to the right place," said the saleswoman. "Follow me. We have some of the finest party dresses in the world."
The saleswoman then spent more than fifteen minutes matching the dresses with the woman’s skin color and eye color. She was trying to help her find the perfect match. After selecting three dresses, the saleswoman said, "Shall we go and try them on?" She unlocked the fitting room and ushered the woman in. The pastor stood outside the wall of the fitting room and listened carefully.
The saleswoman helped the woman with the gym bag try on all three dresses. But then, after about ten minutes, the woman said abruptly, "I’ve changed my mind. I’m not gonna buy a dress today!" The pastor held her breath as she listened. Then she heard the saleswoman say, "That’s all right." And then, in a gentle voice, the saleswoman said to the customer, "Here’s my card. If you ever come back to Nordstrom’s, I do hope that you’ll look for me. I would consider it a great privilege to serve you again."
Don’t you think that’s exactly what Jesus would do—if Jesus were a salesperson in a department store? The Nordstrom’s employee knew that love is something that a person does. It’s not just excellent service to customers. It’s more than affection for your friends and family. It’s more than tolerance, or good manners, or even charity. Agape means loving the neediest people around us—people who are mean, people who hurt or threaten us, people we wish would go away. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us practiced self-sacrificing love like that?
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, your Word is hard for us to hear. Lord, open our ears. Make us eager to hear your life-giving, wonderful and challenging truths Teach us how to live out the love you showed for us. AMEN
“Commentary on I Corinthians 13,” Homiletics, January 2010, 37.
Julie Pennington-Russell, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, TX, quoted in her essay, “The Greatest of These,” from www.goodpreacher.com, January, 2010.
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