Sunday, February 1, 2015

Words That Linger

Deuteronomy 18:9-22 / Mark 1:21-28
February 1, 2015
Ordinary 4
William G. Carter

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophetThis is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

One summer, I had a great invitation for a week of vacation. A good friend in the Adirondack Mountains called to say, “I have a deal for you. There’s a small church in Inlet, NY, and it’s only open in the summer. I need a preacher for the second week in July. If you can come, we’ll pay your mileage, put some money in your pocket, and let you stay for free in the house next door. And maybe we can get you to preach a second sermon in the chapel at Raquette Lake, about fifteen miles down the road.”

Well, it sounded like a great deal to me. At the time, I was a single parent of two little girls. I had no other plans for a summer vacation, so we packed up the car, threw in a slightly used sermon, and drove into the north words for a week-long adventure. We had a great time, did some hiking in the High Peaks, went out in a canoe on Fourth Lake, splashed at a water park in Old Forge, and made a lot of pancakes.

We arrived on a Friday afternoon, as I recall, and threw our duffle bags in the small house that the church owned. We explored the grocery store, the pizza shop across the street, and then I took the key off the eyehook and unlocked the church. It’s a small sanctuary, maybe six pews on either side of a center aisle. My girls ran off giggling, and I went downstairs to check out the fellowship hall. When I came back upstairs, my older daughter, then six years old, was in the pulpit, while her three-year-old sister sat upright in the front pew.

Katie spotted me at the back door, and said, “It’s time to preach. Blah, blah, blah!” Then she pointed to me, and said to her sister, “Now it’s time for the offering. Go get his money.” With that, Meg ran down the aisle and shoved an empty offering plate into my belly.

I can probably figure out where they learned what the offering is all about. The puzzling part for me is understanding how they came to describe my preaching: “Blah, blah, blah.” And if that wasn’t harsh enough, there was the uniform look on the faces of that ten-member congregation on Sunday. It looked like the only sermons they ever heard were blah, blah, blah.

I reflect on that story from time to time. For one thing, it’s a funny memory from what turned out to be a great family vacation. In a deeper sense, it reminds me of the perils and possibilities of preaching.

When the good people of Inlet, New York, open up their church every summer, they call up the local association and say, “Send us a preacher” – or send us one vacationing preacher after another. They pretty much get whatever they get, like a guy with two little girls who takes a used sermon. I would imagine it’s an annual routine. A church member named Rose calls the presbytery office and declares, “We are going to open again,” and then the presbytery staff member looks at the clipboard to see who they have. That’s about as deeply as it goes. No wonder it often comes off as “blah, blah, blah.”

But what about those occasions when God actually wants to say something, those occasions when God wishes to communicate a life-giving message from headquarters? It will never be a “blah, blah, blah.” No, there’s going to be some fire in it. There might be some sparkles of holiness. Something could be said by the preacher up front that actually has an effect on the people who were expecting the same old thing.

That’s what happened in the story Mark tells. Jesus goes into the synagogue at Capernaum. He had recently been baptized, recently took on the devil in the wilderness, recently started a movement and has four fishermen on his team. And when he goes into the synagogue and starts to speak, there’s a buzz in the crowd.

People started whispering sideways, “We never have heard a message like this.” They were accustomed to scribes, those professional scholars who dribbled on about the original Hebrew text and quoted all the experts. And here comes Jesus and he doesn’t use footnotes!

Not only that, when he speaks, he provokes a reaction. Old Eliezer, that half-crazy man in the congregation who always bothers the guest preachers, starts talking back to Jesus. It accelerates, and pretty much he is screaming at the preacher. Jesus says, “Be muzzled – and come out of him!” There’s a short commotion, and then Eliezer is talking sense for the first time in years. Whatever else they said about that day in Capernaum, it was not the same old blah, blah, blah.

At the center of the biblical faith is the proposition that God speaks. The Bible begins with God declaring, “Let there be a world!” and it is so. Whatever God speaks shall happen. That’s how it is, in a cosmic sense, in a heavenly sense. The Word of God is not a text, it’s an action. In Hebrew (oh, there he goes again!), the verb “to speak” is an action word. God speaks and it is a cosmic event.

But human ears cannot hear a heavenly Voice without getting the ear drums punctured. So God chooses to speak by putting his Voice in a human voice. Call it a preacher – or in Old Testament talk, call it a prophet. All those books from the Hebrew prophets, do you know what they are? They are collections of sermons, many of them transcriptions of sermons, or memories of sermons. God never sends an e-mail in the Bible; God sends sound waves, by way of an awakened human heart and the vocal cords of a human messenger. It has been that way from the very beginning.

Back in my student days, as I prepared to take up the tasks of ministry, I came across a sentence in a book that scared me to death. It was from the Second Helvetic Confession, an old Swiss document that the Presbyterians believe to tell the truth. Here is the sentence: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”[1] It gave me pause. I had heard plenty of jolly preachers who thought sermons should be full of jokes and happy little stories, but to think for a minute that God might speak through me – through you – it can be a terrifying business.

Like the crusty old Methodist chaplain who preached in a university cathedral every week. “Scares me to death,” he said to a group of young ministers. “That’s why I stop at the rest room one last time before I step into the sanctuary. I am dealing with the Word of God, and if that doesn’t upset your stomach, nothing will.”

As Moses gives one of his farewell speeches in the book of Deuteronomy, he speaks about speaking – specifically, about God speaking. “You will live in a world where words are cheap,” he says. “When they speak of the mysteries of heaven, they are interested in fortune telling and magic.”

Fortune telling, as in knowing what happens tomorrow, so you can get on the right side of how events will turn. For instance, if you know which team wins the big game today, you can visit Leo the bookie, lay down a $10,000 bet, and make a lot of money. That’s fortune telling, wanting to know what the eternal God knows, so it works out to your advantage. Moses says that is a terrible distortion of words.

Or magic, here in Deuteronomy referred to “sorcery” and “divination.” That’s bad news too, especially as people who belong to the Most High God. Magic is the attempt to manipulate the forces of nature, again to work it for your advantage, to try to gain power over God and God’s world by hidden spells and mysterious incantations. If you believe in the one God, what do you need magic for? It’s a terrible waste of words.

No, God speaks what is true. God speaks what it necessary. God speaks to create life, to order life so it flourishes, to judge life, to renew and restore life. And God will always offer his Word to God’s own people. The Holy One who speaks will never leave his people without a Word – and someone to speak it. That is the promise that Moses gives, first to the Jews, and then to all who are adopted by God in the covenant of Jesus Christ.

It is a remarkable promise. I think of those ten weary faces in the little Adirondack church, wondering who the preacher of the week will be, but after a while, not caring very much. It didn’t seem so much they wanted a Word from God as much as they wanted some young preacher who could change the light bulbs in Fellowship Hall that they couldn’t reach. In return, they would endure the steady blah, blah, blah of whoever showed up.

But it that all there is?  No. What if God should speak? What if the One Voice that we hear, in the human words, is the same Voice who declared, “Let there be life!” What if the same God who spoke through Jesus in synagogue at Capernaum should speak to us? We could not remain the same.

I grew up listening to sermons. Well, actually I didn’t listen very much, and it’s arguable whether I ever grew up.  But in our family, my parents gave no other options on Sunday morning than to go to church.  That’s what we did, and truth be told, blah, blah, blah was often the order of the day. I would often take a pencil and fill in the zeros and the O’s in the worship bulletin. That’s how I got through the service.

But then there was that sermon, the first sermon I ever remember. I was eight years old. I don’t remember what the preacher said, but I remember the sermon. It had been quite a week. That Friday morning, our teacher came into the elementary school and started to teach. Suddenly she broke down and began to sob. Through the tears she said Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. As a second grader, I wasn’t really sure who Dr. King was, but I could tell by her tears that he was important.

The next Sunday, our minister stood up and spoke. He was different. His name was Sheldon Seibel. I couldn’t tell you what he said. Maybe he told us that God loves every single person, that God commands us to love each other. I don’t know what it was, but I will never forget the sound of his voice. He didn’t shout or scream or wave his arms. No, he quietly laid his life on the line by telling the truth as he heard it from the Lord. I have never forgotten the power of that hour. I can’t remember the words, but I will never forget the sermon.

Years later, my father told me that Rev. Seibel had marched in Selma, Alabama. He was in the crowd when Dr. King led the march for human dignity. He came back from Alabama to speak the truth, but the Yankees in our little town weren’t sure they wanted to hear it. Rev. Seibel was never our church’s favorite preacher. He had graduated from Yale, for Pete’s sake; we didn’t always understand what he was talking about.

But on Sunday, April 7, 1968, I was there. I heard the sermon. I don’t remember a word of what he said. The only thing I remember is that God was in the room. There was absolutely no doubt about that. On a day when we most needed it, God’s Word was in our preacher’s words. It was exactly what we needed.

Here is the first and greatest truth of the faith in which we stand: God speaks. For those with ears to hear, God finds a way to communicate to us. We can shrug it off, we can ignore it, we can qualify it or dismiss it.

Perhaps we might even listen . . . and be healed.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Full text of the section: THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if (s)he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good. (2nd Helvetic Confession)

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