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the sermon for

the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

04 February 2018

Isaiah 40:21-31
Only those who need the gospel
are able to hear the gospel!

02042018"The Doom of the Nation." That's the title of chapter twelve in my Old Testament text from back in seminary. "The Doom of the Nation." Dark. Ominous. Full of foreboding. Jerusalem had survived a siege by the armies of Assyria. Assyria the great! Assyria the powerful! God saved the people! And now, they believed they were invincible, unconquerable! Jerusalem rejoiced! Jerusalem reveled! It was a time of patriotism! It was a time of believing! The people felt they were on the brink, on the verge, of something special! Of a Golden Age! A return not just to the good old days, but to the great old days, to the greatest old days! They dreamed! And the dreams they dreamed were big dreams!

But then, came Babylon. This time, when the armies reached the city, Jerusalem was defeated. Defeated, devastated, and destroyed. And the Temple – like the city – was left in ruins. People died. A lot of people died. By the sword. By hunger. Plague. And the rich and powerful – everybody who was anybody – were led away in chains as trophies of war. Those who endured, those who survived, became refugees. Jerusalem, for all intents and purposes, was no more. Worse yet, god had vanished. And Jeremiah sang a dirge...

"How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal, a sharecropper, a slave..."

Humiliated. Abandoned. Alone. But like I said, the worst part of it all was that god had disappeared! God was gone and Babylon had done what no one else had been able to do. They undid everything god had done. They took away the land. They broke the promise! "The Doom of the Nation." Its ruin. Its death.

And it's funny... reading through the passage from Isaiah earlier in the week... all I could hear was the anger, the accusation. All I could hear was god ranting and raving against a broken people. Pointing fingers! Laying blame!

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?"

I read the words and god sounded so angry, so bitter! Like someone who had reached the end of their rope! The last straw! The last nerve! "It's he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing."

It sounded like a scene straight out of Job. You know what I mean. When god's taken about all god can stand and lets Job have it! A who-do-you-think-you-are kind of moment! I have to confess, each time I'd start reading, I never got beyond this point. I'd hear the rage and I, simply, gave up. The only thing that kept me going was something a professor told us in seminary. This, he said, was SECOND Isaiah. It's a book of promise! A book of hope! And so I read. And I read again. Until something happened. God's voice slowly, surely began to change. Less ruthless, less rude. Gentler, more compassionate. After a while, I realized god was beginning to sound like a parent! Like a parent comforting a child – their child – after waking from a nightmare!

"It's okay! I'm here! I've got you! The Temple's gone. Jerusalem's no more. The land belongs to someone else. But we still have each other! I'm still here! I'm still with you! I never left!

I was amazed at how it worked! It seems, the people who needed good news heard it! The people who needed good news heard it! But the people who don't –people like me, sitting in my office, safe and sound – don't! Can't!

That's what's happening in Mary's song, in the Magnificat! God casts the mighty down from their thrones and uplifts the humble of heart! God fills the hungry with wondrous things and leaves the wealthy no part! It's not that god's doing two different things, speaking two different messages. One to the mighty and wealthy. Another to the humble and hungry. God does only one thing, speaks only one word. But some just can't hear it! Can't hear it because they - like me, don't need it! And what they hear twists and distorts that good news into something they can hear, twists and distorts that good news into something it's not!

It's the suffering - the agony and the anguish – that reveals the gospel! You can't forgive someone who believes they've never done anything wrong, someone who thinks they've done everything right! No matter how hard you try! You can't lift up someone who's never fallen! You can't wipe away tears someone has never cried! You need the gloom, the despair, the agony! You need the changes and the chances of life to understand, to appreciate!

That might be why it's so hard to be evangelicals here in the U.S. Real evangelicals! Gospel-believers! We have it too good! What do they say? Even on our worst day, it's better than... We can do anything we put our mind to! All we have to do is try harder and do better! Truth is, we just don't need saving! Why bother with a savior; faith becomes nothing more than a code of ethics or a set of laws, nothing more than rules and regulations. So, when something comes along that knocks us on our kiester – something like 9/11 or any one of the numberless mass shootings – we don't know what to do, how to feel. So we just shut down. We simply go numb. No. We don't need saving. Or if we do, we save ourselves. And when we read the words like the ones we did, this morning, we think god is angry! And so we just stop reading.

The Doom of the Nation. Unfortunately, that's what it takes to get our attention. It's only in the darkness that we can hear god calling – whispering, actually – softly, tenderly... "Why? Why do you say, I'm not here, when I am! Why do you say, I don't care, when I do! When I've never stopped caring! Have you not know? Have you not heard! I've been with you, all along! I've never, ever gone away!

The Doom of the Nation. It's here that we, finally, can feel god's hands take hold of us! It's here that we, at last, can feel god's arms around us! That we can feel god's heartbeat, god's warmth! That we can hear god's breath in our ears! That we know we're safe! Safe... in spite of! Safe... no matter! It's the doom that is important! The doom that matters! Without it, there is no faith, there is no believing!

That's the difference between the rich and poor! That's the difference between the powerful and weak! That's the difference between the satisfied and the hungry! Between Pharisee and sinner! Between grain and chaff! Between wheat and weeds! Between sheep and goats! The one doesn't need saving – or, at least, doesn't think they do! But the other... the other is captive, bound, and needs someone else to come and set them free! The first hear only anger. For the latter, for those who need a savior, for those who need good news, there's the love, the charity, the grace. Always the love, the charity, and the grace! "God gives power to the paint, strength to the powerless!" Because they know, without a doubt, that it can happen no other way! "Have you not known," god asks! Expecting us to say, "Yes! We have known!" "Have you not heard?" "Of course, we've heard!" "Remember," god says! "Think back! To when you were young! To the lessons you learned! To the songs you sang! Jesus love me, this I know! Jesus loves the little children, all the children! That's still me! I'm still that god! And I'm here – I'm still here – beside you! Now! And forever!

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the sermon for

the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

28 January 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
It's the word that creates the heeding;
not the heeding the word!

01282018Well, there you have it, center and front...

The LORD your God will raise up a prophet; and you shall heed!

The prophet speaks; the people listen! Listen closely! Listen carefully! And then, they do what the prophet tells them! Simple as that! And if you don't, if you won't, if you can't? Well, there's always the next verse!

Between you and me, what that seems to be saying is that when there are problems here in the church, y'all are to blame. You're just not listening! You aren't heeding like you should, heeding like you ought. Because if you were, if you did, well, there wouldn't be a problem! Everything would be so much better. Membership. Attendance. Offerings. If only you took seriously what you hear from the pulpit, what a difference it would make! In your commitment! Your dedication! In our life together! The LORD your God raises up the prophet; and you listen! You heed!

It's like that joke. A new pastor comes to a congregation. The first Sunday, he gets up, preaches a sermon, and everyone loves it! Second Sunday, he does the same thing, same sermon! Third, fourth, fifth Sunday, it's the same. After eight or so Sundays, the people are getting angry. The president of the congregation goes to see the pastor. "Pastor," he says, "when are you going to preach another sermon?" The pastor says, "As soon as you get the first one right!" It's your fault! You're to blame! You just aren't heeding!

Polls, pretty consistently, show that seventy-five to eighty percent of the Lutheran Church across this continent disagree with or don't understand the basic teaching of this church. We're shrinking, turning grayer. And it's because you're no heeding! Not listening, not hearing, like you should! If only! Become better disciples! Become the Christians you were meant to be! Read your bibles! Say your prayers! Come to church! And of course, give! Tithe! It's nothing you haven't heard, before. Nothing new. In fact, for a decade-and-a-half, that's been the litany we've been offering up throughout Northern Texas and Northern Louisiana. And the whole time, it's been you! All you!

The LORD your God will raise up a prophet; and you shall heed!

You shall heed! All the while, we the prophets, we the preachers, have told you to change! To do things differently! And you know, I don't remember hearing anything about us! The prophets! The preachers! About us or about our message! And that - THAT – is what Moses is pointing to, this morning! The listening, he's telling us, the listening is only as good as the speaking! The heeding only as effective as the word spoken! "Anyone who doesn't, who can't, who won't, I'll hold accountable. But the prophet who speaks in the name of another god or who presumes to speak in my name a word I have not spoken, that prophet shall die!"

Here, in this place, speaking and heeding are two sides of the same coin. But it's not a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. The speaking always comes first! The speaking always has priority! And the heeding forever follows! In fact, it's the speaking that creates the heeding! It's what's spoken that determines who we are, that decides what we become. It's the word that makes it all happen! Just like in the beginning! The word of the prophet! The word of the preacher! Creating! Inspiring! Shaping!

But, truth is, sometimes... sometimes the word a prophet speaks isn't the word of god! Sometimes it's not the message god wants given! Sometimes it's, even, the word of another god! The congregation still listens! The congregation still hears! It still heeds! But it shrinks! And it turns grayer! Because of the word, the message, that was spoken. In the end, three-quarters to two-thirds of the church disagree with or don't understand. Not because they haven't heeded, but because of the prophet, because of the preacher, and what he or she has said.

We are a church anchored, rooted, in proclamation. We believe the church is the people of god among whom the gospel is proclaimed in its purity! We believe that because we have seen what happens when the gospel is proclaimed reluctantly, unenthusiastically. The message spoken has implications, has repercussions. Especially for the listener, for the hearer, the heeder! Like three-quarters to two-thirds of us disagreeing, three-quarters to two-thirds of us not understanding, all because we never heard the message plainly and simply, never heard the message loudly and clearly. Sometimes, we don't talk about Jesus with our family and friends not because we don't want to, but because we just don't know what to say. We've never been told! At least, not in the way god meant for us to hear!

Some Sunday morning, when you're not able to get here. Too wet! Too cold! Or if you, simply, want to spend a Sunday morning like the people around you. Taking your time drinking a cup of coffee and reading through the paper. When you do, do me a favor. Turn on your television, tune in to any prophet, and listen. Listen and see if they speak gospel. Listen and see if they proclaim good news. Anything about god's loving? Anything about god's forgiving? Anything about Jesus? The cross? What the people hear, they heed. It's just that the word they hear and heed, more often than not, isn't the word god asked to be spoken. It's a word; it's just not god's word! It's a word; it's just not Jesus!

"In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake, God forgives!" By grace, for Christ's sake, through faith! That's the gospel! No warnings! No threats! No ultimatums! No sulfur and smoke! No retribution or wrath! Just love! Charity! Grace! Pure! Unbounded! It that word, if that message, isn't spoken, the people – y'all – still heed! But the fruit of that heeding isn't the love! It isn't the love! You're still disciples, just not disciples of the gospel. And the church continues to get smaller and smaller... and continues to turn grayer and grayer...

Thirty-some years ago, when I was ordained into the ministry of word and sacrament, the bishop asked me four questions. Unfortunately, I forget three of them. The one I remember was this: Will you preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and the creeds and confessions? Will you preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and the creeds and confessions? I heard him ask, Will you preach and teach the gospel in its purity? Words have consequences. They have repercussions. And what is spoken, here, now, matters. Matters in the here and now. Matters in the forever after. It makes us who we are. It establishes what we become. Forming and reforming. Shaping and shaping again. Heeding is important. But speaking is essential.

We don't come here to be entertained. We're not here to be amused. We're not here to be poked and prodded. We aren't here for someone to make us do what we'd rather not. We're here to hear. We're here to listen. To the words god wants spoken. To the message god wants proclaimed. To the words of grace and mercy! To the message of forgiveness and love! We are here to listen to the words of god's commitment and to hear the message of god's compassion! And then, to be carried along on its current! To be carried along in its wake! For that, that is what it is to heed!

The LORD your God will raise up a prophet! The LORD has already raised up a prophet! And you shall heed! You shall heed! For in hearing, you can do nothing else! In hearing, you can do nothing less!

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