July 17, 2016

Pentecost 9   July 17, 2016   Luke 24:36, 44-48; Acts 13:13-43

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The ending to this sermon we’ve just heard may sound a little strange – considering Paul’s a guest preacher, in an unfamiliar setting. Where are his manners? His sermon ending is a bit in our face, isn’t it? – “Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’”

I’m probably way too timid, but – it’s hard for me to imagine ending a sermon like this…

Yet, at the same time, we should notice, there are quite a few things Paul says here that are standard public speaking approaches. He start off by affirming common ground – greeting the congregation as ‘Fellow Israelites” – and – “Fellow children of Abraham…(before also including the Gentile believers in attendance)… He speaks several times of our people, our ancestors – God calling our ancestors into becoming a people – promises God made to our ancestors… Paul recalls a lot of common-ground history of Israel – slavery in Egypt, time in the wilderness, coming into the land of Canaan… He claims the heritage of King David, “a man after God’s own heart” – now for Jesus, the Messiah.

Up to this point, and the introduction of Jesus – everything said is probably all good with the congregation… Next comes locating Jesus as fulfillment of the psalms, prophets, and legacy of King David – quoting psalms 2 and 16, quoting the prophets Isaiah (55) and Habakkuk (1) –  proclaiming Jesus as fulfillment of all that’s good in the heritage of Israel….

Starting with common ground before edging into less familiar turf – telling us now that Jesus was rejected by the leaders and people of Jerusalem because they didn’t recognize him for who he is – Messiah and Savior – or understand the prophets who spoke of his coming. Thus they crucified Jesus – fulfilling what the prophets said – prophets we heard – without really hearing…

Paul then goes on to say Jesus stands ready to forgive every sin – which sounds like very good news to me. Jesus forgives all sins – adding this is something that doesn’t happen – by obeying the law of Moses. Which sounds again like good news. (I’ve never been much good at keeping all the law of Moses.) But this has also been one of those places where Christians have often misunderstood Judaism. There’s been an unfortunate tendency over the centuries to imagine Jews as believing in salvation by works of the law, and Christians as believing in salvation by grace alone. But the reality, bible scholars and historians now tell us, was that most Jews always believed their salvation and their selection as the people of God was entirely by grace.

When Paul tells us in his letters – we are saved by grace, not law – he’s reminding Jews of what they should already know – and teaching Gentile pagans what they usually do not know. Pagan gods typically demand all kinds of works from their devotees. This way of thinking has to be corrected… But Jews and Christians alike believe we covenant with God to keep the heart of God’s laws, not to win salvation, but to honor God and live in harmony with each other…

Neither Jesus nor Paul excuses us from trying to obey the law… They both let us know the law is good and holy and of great help, rightly understood, for teaching and guidance… The law itself is not intended for salvation – except in the sense that the most important commandments and the summary of the whole law, is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, all our mind… And to love our neighbor as our self. “Do this and you will live,” Jesus says. And yet this kind of all-in, all-the-time love is, of course, something nobody can really do… Except by the grace of God…

And – on the other hand – there is a well-documented human tendency for people of all tribes and nations, regardless of official beliefs – to act as if we believe salvation comes from living by the letter of the law…

Paul anticipates some will hear Jesus as a threat to carefully-constructed human rules designed to limit and ration-out love… in limited portions to those we already love or agree with – as he concludes his sermon with a rather strong word about not letting what the prophet warns about happen to us – as he quotes the prophet Habakkuk, saying, ‘look out scoffers, beware, lest you disbelieve and perish – As God does a new thing that you won’t believe, even if you’re told about it…’

Again, I confess, I’m probably way too timid…. I can’t remember ever ending a sermon like this.

But then again, I have only a very little experience preaching in a synagogue or church that’s used to revival preaching….(Though I do remember – preaching once a long time ago, in a Black Pentecostal church in Boston, while the pastor, a friend, was on vacation… My sermon was all done in less than twenty minutes… And the congregation was still waiting to hear the rest of the sermon… Because this poor kid who didn’t know how to preach… never got around to convicting everyone of sin… And calling everyone into repentance and re-commitment to Jesus…)

And Paul not only seems to get away with saying what he says – he’s actually got people so deeply involved in his sermon that they follow him out of the synagogue after the service, still talking about what he’s said… Inviting him back next week… To tell them more… (Talk about good sermon feedback…)

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We’ve just listened to the first recorded sermon of a young missionary, formerly known as Saul, now going by the name of Paul. Preaching in a synagogue on the first of his missionary journeys…

And probably people hear Paul out because he says what he says rather well – he picks his shots, and most of what he says fits expectations. This was probably a familiar type of sermon at that time and place – a sermon few, if any, are initially offended by. In some churches and synagogues – (and the words synagogue and church both mean essentially the ‘assembly of the people for worship’) – revival sermons are normal. Many churches hold revivals every year, lasting a few days or a week or more – preaching every night, sometimes also afternoon matinees…

Revival sermons virtually always feature a strong indictment of sin, along with a call to repentance, often with an altar call – an invitation to come forward and accept Jesus publicly. If we’ve already done this, we can come to the altar again and re-commit to Jesus. We do an altar call every year at our Ordination service in New England Annual Conference of the Methodist Church… But some churches do revivals just about every week…

And revival preaching in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (a different Antioch, notice, from where we were last week in Syrian Antioch) – is probably no more regarded as unusual than jazz musicians playing blues and ballads… It’s what we came to hear all along, and we’re disappointed if we don’t hear it.

The only thing really new and different here is Jesus – a radically new concept, to be sure. Even though Paul does a great job of locating Jesus within a framework of shared beliefs –  emphasizing the continuity of God’s story – still the whole idea of Jesus, condemned by Jews and Gentiles alike, crucified – now risen from the dead, declared to be Son of God… Is a radically new and rather challenging concept…

Hearing Jesus is the Messiah, Savior, God’s Son – who fulfills all scripture and changes everything – is very good news for those who are hurting or lost… But for those with large investments in the status quo… This is still good news, but also very challenging, even destabilizing news…

Jesus is thoroughly destabilizing – highly challenging – totally reorienting of life as we used to know it…

And if we understand Jesus (even a little), we know – that we, his followers, are still called to be his witnesses – fellow workers – wherever we go… including in church… Which may seem like preaching to the choir… But why wouldn’t the choir need preaching? (Just like everyone else?)

The book of Acts is all about bearing witness to Jesus to the far-ends of the earth. Yet  everywhere the first disciples go, the first stop is always the local synagogue (in any town or city large enough to have one)…

First, because the person and message of Jesus is both a continuation and a fulfillment of all the work of creation, liberation, teaching, and salvation God’s been doing from the beginning… And God has invested heavily in Israel, and God’s promises to Israel, as Paul will say in his letter to the Romans, are irrevocable. And Jesus and all his first disciples are Jewish. And the God of Jesus Christ is also the God of Abraham and Sarah, God of Moses, God of King David, God of the prophets of Israel. (Though these all appear in new light, once we know Jesus…)

And getting the people of Israel on board with the Messiah continues to be a major theme,  all through the book of Acts – both for Israel’s sake, and for the sake of the rest of the world. As Luke, author of Luke and Acts reminds us of what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth…”  (Isaiah 49:6) The salvation of the world is bound together with the heritage and people of Israel… and…Again, we’ve heard… Jesus tell us in our (first) reading from the end of Luke’s gospel – he himself is fulfillment of all the sacred scriptures of Israel…

So we, his followers, should be studying the words of the law, prophets, and psalms of Israel, with an eye both to seeing Jesus there… And to being able to speak effectively about both where Jesus is – and is not – to be found in the scriptures. (Just because Jesus fulfills the scriptures doesn’t mean Jesus signs off on partisan or one-dimensional interpretations of scripture. Jesus tutors us in everything fundamental to life – but Jesus is not a fundamentalist. He’s neither a flat-earth conservative nor a flat-earth liberal… We hear the word rightly only as we hear it through Jesus and the Holy Spirit…)

And like Paul and friends long ago, we too should be able to talk about Jesus first of all in the language of the bible… Later we’ll hear Paul speaking about Jesus to people who don’t know the bible and he’ll be using very different sermon illustrations… We need to know how to this too. But first we should be sure that we know the Jesus that we meet in the bible, and in church, consistent with the experience of people of faith through all the centuries…

So we study all the bible all the more… to know both the continuity of the Old and New Testaments (something the apostles teach consistently throughout Acts). And to recognize the radical new creation that is in Christ… In Whom there’s power for forgiveness of all sins… Power for making all things new… Power for wiping away every tear from every eye…

So – we should keep praying and singing praises to God, always, as we read the word… Asking Jesus to open the word of God for us, always… Because without the Holy Spirit, even the words of scripture are like a body without breath. As God speaks in the beginning and life and light come forth – so we always need to receive God’s breath of life, God’s Spirit – to make the words of scripture come alive… through Jesus Christ, the Word of life…

As Charles Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist movement, has said in poetry… (I read now from #595 in our hymnal – next to the hymn we’ll sing next:)

Whether the Word be preached or read, no saving benefit I gain

from empty sounds or letters dead; unprofitable all and vain,

unless by faith thy word I hear – and see it’s heavenly character.

Unmixed with faith, the Scripture gives – no comfort, life, or light to see,

but me in darker darkness leaves, implunged in deeper misery,

overwhelmed with nature’s sorest ills, The Spirit saves, the letter kills.

If God enlighten through his Word,  I shall my kind Enlightener bless;

but void and naked of my Lord,  what are all verbal promises?

Nothing to me, till faith divine – inspire, inspeak, and make them mine.

Jesus, the appropriating grace – ‘tis thine on sinners to bestow.

Open mine eyes to see thy face,  open my heart thyself to know.

And then I through thy Word obtain – sure present, and eternal gain.

May God add blessings to the hearing of his word.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.