Rose Park Sunday School (Adults and Children) at 8:45 a.m. / Worship at 9:45 a.m.

Madison Sunday School (Adults and Children) 10:15 a.m. / Worship at 11:15 a.m.

Speaking God’s Words

Based on Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:22-30

          The Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh, is divided into three major collections of writings.  It begins with the Torah, the five books of Moses, then moves to the Prophets (Nevi’im) and finally the Writings (Ketuvim).  Of all the books of the Tanakh, I love the writings of the Prophets best.  The prophets were called by God to live lives set apart from the people and yet always in relationship to the people and to God.  It was a difficult and perilous life, being God’s prophet and speaking God’s word, and most of God’s prophets were killed by the worldly powers of their day.

          All of the prophets were profoundly in love with God and with their people.  Some were quite reluctant to engage in the prophetic tasks given by God (think Moses, Jonah and Habakkuk).  They did not seek after the gift of prophecy and had to be convinced that the God who called them would not abandon them.  The Prophets all had difficult things to say to the leadership and to the whole people about errant life choices and how they had forgotten the God who had delivered them from Egypt and given to them the Promised Land.  None of the prophets were popular or welcomed in their own land during their lives; but their love for God and the people never failed.

          Take for example, Jeremiah.  He was called at a young age to tell the leaders and all of Judah that the Babylonians were massing in the north and would come and destroy Judah and Jerusalem because of their apostasy.  Right after our reading for today, God says to Jeremiah, “…But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you.  Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.  And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, and iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land – against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.  They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you….”  From the beginning, Jeremiah knew that he loved the people of God and needed to speak God’s words to them to try to save them from the consequences of their poor choices.

          Speaking God’s words in love to God’s people is what our scriptures are about today.  We heard about Jeremiah’s calling and initial task.  The reading from 1Corinthians is Paul’s great sonnet on agape love – telling us that if we do not do things out of unconditional love for all that we will amount to nothing.  Finally, we have the second part of the narrative about Jesus in Nazareth.  Jesus puts on his prophetic hat and speaks to the people about how they need to understand the works of the great prophets.  Before we go farther, let us go to God now, thanking God for raising up loving prophets in every age to call us back to God…

          Jeremiah served as God’s prophet during a very challenging time in the life of Judah.  He was called when Josiah was King, and he prophesied through the reign of King Zedekiah – a total of about 40 years.  It was about 100 years after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel that Jeremiah begins to prophesy for God.  The major focus of Jeremiah’s prophecies speak to the paganism that had overtaken the people of God and how they needed to repent and return to worshipping the LORD before it was too late.  He begins as a prophet by telling God (like Moses and Isaiah before him) that he doesn’t know what to say.  God tells Jeremiah that God will provide the words, Jeremiah just needs to have the courage and commitment to speak what God gives him.

          Paul continues his teaching to the believers in Corinth by pointing out the most important thing that they can do as disciples of the Christ.  Paul tells them that whether they are prophets, mystics, paupers or martyrs for Jesus, if they do not serve from a place of unconditional love, then they will amount to nothing as far as the kingdom of God is concerned.  Agape love, the kind of love that Paul is talking about, denotes benevolence, good will and esteem towards all – it is the love that God pours out on us every moment of our lives.  This is the only kind of love that is powerful enough to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things.  It is a love that is eternal and will lead us to salvation.

          We pick up the story of Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.  He has just let the assembled know that the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled in their hearing.  Initially, the congregation was “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”.  However, his words took a prophetic turn and Jesus (like Jeremiah before him) began to show the congregation how they had misunderstood the words of the great prophets.  This angered the assembly and they set out to throw him down a hill.  However, God was not going to let these people harm Jesus, so God led him through the middle of the crowd out of Nazareth and into his ministry.

          Speaking God’s words is a calling – no one takes on the job of being God’s mouthpiece thinking it is a great way to make a living.  To speak God’s words is to take on the cruciform life – a life of being connected vertically to God and at the same time horizontally to all of God’s people and creation.  The great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, in a book chapter entitled, “Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted” has this to say about speaking God’s words, “…[There] are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse, to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies, is not only more tolerant but far more Christian. For ‘who has known the mind of God?’  And didn’t Paul also insist that if we fail in love we fail in all other things?…”

            In my mind, putting the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love – having limited sympathies and unlimited certainties are what is leading The United Methodist Church towards schism.  When we attempt to engage God’s people without humility and agape, we discover that we are just a clanging cymbal or noisy gong.  The words we speak are unintelligible to our listeners.  I have found myself wondering if this could be why the Church and her people have fallen on hard times over the last 50 years?  Additionally, Paul reminds us that if we try to work for God without unconditional love, we will find that we will gain nothing – we will fail at whatever we try if we are only doing it either for personal or parochial gain, or to maintain the status quo.

          Effectively speaking God’s words means that we must speak as well adjusted, humble and insightful adults – having put away all of our childish behaviors and attitudes.  The Apostle Paul notes these child-like behaviors and attitudes include being envious, boastful, arrogant or rude; insisting on our own way, being irritable or resentful, rejoicing when another fails or is caught doing something wrong.  Instead, we have to embrace a humility that “we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part”.  Though we are not ever going to be as wise as God, we must trust that God will give us what we need to say when it needs to be said.  We must trust that once we truly begin speaking God’s words that God will never abandon us – no matter how much upheaval those words cause.

          We are all called, at one time or another, to speak God’s words.  This might be speaking into someone’s life they empty their woes or trauma on us.  It might be when we offer support and non-judgmental reflection when someone is lost and seeking.  It might be offering counsel and comfort when someone is in need.  Speaking God’s words is not the same thing as quoting bits of scripture as cliches to rid ourselves of the problem that confronts us.  Speaking God’s words is always a process of speaking out of God’s love for us, about God’s great love for all creation.  Speaking God’s words brings healing, hope, unity and dignity; it removes hierarchies and restores relationships and community.  God’s love builds up and restores after God calls us to repentance to remove that which did not serve God’s kingdom. Speaking God’s words into a world that has forgotten God is the most challenging thing we can do as disciples; it is also the most necessary thing we can do as disciples.  May we have the humility and grace to allow God to lead us as we speak God’s words into our world.  Amen and amen!