February 8, 2015 – By all means save some

Isaiah 40:21-31
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? It is 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. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Si-mon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

1 Corinthians 9:16-27
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

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Epiphany 5 Feb 8, 2015   (Psalm 147, Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39)

1 Corinthians 9:16-27   By all means save some

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Rabbis of old tell a story of a king whose son has become convinced that he is a turkey. (Literally.) This son insists on living on the floor, naked, scratching the floor, eating only crumbs from off the table. None of the doctors in the land are able to help. Finally a wise man comes to visit, and says he’ll try to cure the son.

The wise man takes off his clothes, gets down on the floor and starts scratching the floor. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” the son asks. “I am a turkey like you,” the man replies. And so for quite awhile the two sit together under the table and get used to each other.

After some time passes, the wise man motions for some shirts to be given to him. Then he says to the son, “Do you assume that just because we are turkeys we can’t wear shirts? We can wear a shirt and still be a turkey…” So they both put on shirts…. After awhile the wise man motions for pants to be tossed to him. Then he says to the king’s son, “just because we’re turkeys… doesn’t mean we can’t wear pants, does it?” So the son and the wise man both put on pants. And it goes on like this till both are fully clothed…

Then the wise man motions for human food to be brought from the table…And says “just because we’re turkeys doesn’t mean we can’t eat good food does it?” So the son and the wise man eat together… Then the wise man says “just because we’re turkeys doesn’t mean we can’t sit at the table does it? We can sit at the table and still be turkeys….” So they both get up off the floor and sit together at the table… And so it continues, step by step… till the son at last is fully healed and fully human…

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And Rabbi Paul the apostle says “I became as a Jew to the Jews… I became as one under the Law for those under the Law (though I’m no longer under the law)… And I became as one not under the law – as a Gentile or pagan – to the Gentiles and pagans (though I am still under the law of God in Christ, and not at all lawless in my behavior)… And to the weak, Paul says, I have become weak… So that by all means, I may save some.

Even if this means going to extremes – still the apostle’s watch word is – by all means save some. Some translations say “so that by all possible means I might save some… And some ancient texts of the letter conclude saying “so that I may save all people.”

Paul’s talking again about living a Christian lifestyle in a pagan world. Paul’s still concerned, as we heard last week, that Christians should not participate in the sins of the wider culture. But today the emphasis is different. Now Paul’s talking about how Christians should participate in the salvation of all people. By all means – save some. By all means possible – save as many as possible.

And because we live in a world of extremes, sometimes extreme measures may be necessary. (Though often not as extreme as we might imagine.) Our ancient Rabbinic story, for example is a parable. Even though there may be many people we think are turkeys – no one’s really suggesting we get down and eat off the floor to save all the turkeys…

Paul coins the phrase “all things to all people.” He’d be rich if he did the copyright thing – which he never would, since he’s committed to keeping the gospel free of charge. But when the apostle says “I’ve become all things to all people” he’s not being a chameleon – constantly changing appearance. He’s saying he’s willing to go to extremes – even become like a slave in the cause of the gospel (while insisting at the same time he’s always free in Christ). And yes, St Paul is metaphorically willing even to crawl under the table and hang out with delusional turkeys if that’s what it takes to win all to Christ…

But he’ll do this only by Christ’s command, not by anyone else’s demand. Because just like Jesus, Paul won’t do for us what we’re supposed to do ourselves.

And indeed, Christ’s call to all the church is to be persuading all, by all means, to put all faith and hope in Christ – so that together in Christ we may all become more Christlike together… As we show Christ alive by the quality of our lives lived in Christ…

And though we’re to become all things to all people in one sense – in order to reach all for Jesus – still this doesn’t change the message of Jesus, which is the same always. But we’re always to be telling the good news of Jesus in ways that best match our context, and make it more likely to be heard. So we need to keep learning to understand the gospel – and the world in which we and our neighbors live – with the eyes of Jesus.

And Paul is speaking in metaphors and parables – reminding us life is for real. Life’s not like all those super bowl ads that try to sell us on the notion that every blessing is for sale. (We can be the perfect dad if we just buy our daughter that new Camry. This land is my land, this land is your land, all over the whole wide planet – if we just buy the Jeep… And the puppy will get home safe and sound, if we buy enough Budweiser…) The super bowl, of course, was never intended to be much like real life.

And St Paul’s not against even rather strange sports metaphors. Paul say in our concluding verses (v24-27) that life is like a race in which all the runners run, but only one wins the prize. Then he says he himself is like a boxer, shadow-boxing with himself… So that after preaching to others he won’t be disqualified himself…

The gospel gives us permission to make use of strange metaphors… It’s ok to remind each other – even the best quarterbacks in the world get intercepted in the biggest game of the year at really bad times… Even the best teams encounter situations that can never be predicted or adequately defended against. (How about that knocked-down-deflected-Seahawks-pass? – falling weirdly into the arms of the receiver lying on the ground – who looked just as amazed as everyone else…)

In the super bowl and in real life – stuff is always going to happen that can’t be predicted or controlled. But even though God has fixed the game in advance in one sense – God will win in the end no matter what – still – God has also made it known – the rest of us really don’t know where we’re all going to be till the last whistle blows…Nor do we know the future of our friends, family, neighbors. So we take very seriously our commission – to by all means save some – by all means possible save as many as possible…

And to reach all who can be reached with the saving love of God, we must be ready, willing, and able to communicate the gospel. There will always be many opportunities – but we often won’t have any more time to think about what we’re going to do or say in advance than the Seahawks had time to anticipate Malcolm Butler’s move… But listening to the after-the-game reports and interviews, I was impressed by how many Patriots talked about Belichek getting them ready for the Super Bowl way back in April – saying “if you want to see confetti fly in February – don’t be late for practice in April…” Players also talked about other players, Edelman for one, coming to the stadium as early as five in the morning for early practice…We can’t ever really plan or predict the future … But we can always prepare… with practice…

That’s what St Paul means by shadow boxing himself to be ready… He’s talking about imitating Jesus – who we see today in Capernaum, healing many, doing healing late into the night – then getting up early the next morning – to have time alone in prayer with God, apart from all distractions. (And if Jesus needs his prayer time alone with God – what about all the rest of us?)

Jesus is always teaching, preaching, healing, casting out demons by the presence of God… Always calling others to God, always training us to be his followers – teaching us and teaching us to teach others, to do all Jesus says to do…

To communicate the gospel we need to be able to tell the gospel message from the heart. We don’t need to be eloquent, but do we need to be able to communicate, by word and deed, that God is real and God is love – and God’s love is made perfectly known in Jesus Christ… who died and rose from the dead for us. And Jesus loves us this we know…for the bible tells us so…And the bible also gives us a whole lot more wisdom to grow on… That we’re also supposed to know… Isaiah says “all who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…” But unless we wait upon the Lord, don’t expect to have our strength renewed. Jesus says “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest” – but unless we come unto him, don’t expect real rest. This too is part of the gospel we need to teach. (And…)

To communicate the gospel, we also need to know and love the people we’re trying to reach. We need to know something about what they do, what they believe, their songs, their stories, their fears, their hopes.

Paul’s always out to learn all he can about the people he’s trying to reach. Whenever Paul comes to a city, he goes first to the Jewish synagogue if there is one, touching base with his home culture. Among Jews, Paul (who is, remember, Jewish) lives as a Jew, to persuade as many as possible to see in Jesus fulfillment of all the Jewish law and prophets – all that’s good and true in Jewish culture and tradition – which is a lot.

Among Greeks and Romans, the majority culture of his day, Paul lives like a Greek. He’s a Roman citizen, fluent in Greek, well trained in Greco-Roman ways of communicating. (He’d probably do face book and text messaging much better than I do.) When Paul goes to Athens (Acts 17) he walks it’s city streets, preaches in it’s marketplaces and cultural centers, even quotes Athen’s poets back to them.

Among the weak, Paul becomes weak. With those new to the faith, struggling with faith, Paul identifies with their struggles, doubts, and questions.

Wherever he goes, in any culture – the apostle studies the culture and adjusts how he presents the gospel, never changing the content but always adjusting how he says what he says, always modifying his own behaviors to make the gospel less difficult for others to understand. Because his eyes are always fixed on the prize, aiming always to – By all means save some. By all possible means, save as many as possible.

And yes, this can get a bit extreme sometimes. The gospel of Jesus Christ is extreme. Jesus dying on the cross for all – that’s extreme. Jesus rising from the dead to make all things new – extreme! Jesus coming to bring the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven – quite extreme. Jesus freeing, healing, saving, giving abundant life and even new life for the dead – all that’s extreme.

And our calling as Christ’s church, the body of Christ, together, is to be like Jesus. Yes, that’s extreme. But God’s extreme love is why we’re so blessed – to share in all the blessings of the gospel. As we work together with Jesus to by all means possible – reach all – save all…bless all…

Thanks be to God. Amen.