The Scriptures for this coming Sunday, September 8, 2008 (the 15th Sunday after Pentecost) are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20 (following Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary).
This is fourth time that I will write something related to that set of readings. This first time was right after I moved from Kentucky to New York in 1999 and I was just beginning my service as lay minister at Walker Valley United Methodist Church. In 1999, September 8th was the 15th Sunday after Pentecost. “A New Start” is the sermon that I gave that day.
Following the lectionary, the same set of scriptures were again used in 2002 and 2005 but for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost. As noted, this coming Sunday is the 15th Sunday. It is interesting how the lectionary works over the years. It is also interesting how the same Scriptures can lead to different sermons, all dependent on the time, the place, and the world around us.
My sermon for September 8, 2002, “A Sense of Community” (given at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church, Putnam Valley, NY) is posted here.
My sermon for September 4, 2005, “Lexington, North Carolina (given at Vails Gate United Methodist Church, Vails Gate, NY) is posted here.
Back in the late 60’s there was a song by the group Chicago “Does Anyone Know What Time It Is?” After reading the first verse of today’s Old Testament reading, you have to ask that very question. For us, today is September 5, 1999, but that when you look at the meaning for the word “September”, you have to wonder what time it is. The root for the word “September” means seven because September was originally the seventh month in the calendar. When you look at October, November, and December, you see that they were originally the eighth, ninth, and tenth months respectively. But September became the ninth month in the calendar when Julius Caesar decided he wanted a month for himself and Caesar Augustus did not want to be out done. So we got the months of July and August.
In the OT reading for today, God tells the Israelites to begin preparing for the Passover, the last of the plagues to strike Egypt. He tells them that this will occur in what will become the first month of the year. On our traditional calendar, the month of Passover occurs in April. Now April is not the first month of the year; January, as we know, is.
In the Julian calendar, the one created when the months of July and August were added, the beginning of the New Year and the celebration of Passover were in the month of April. However, the Julian calendar caused problems with the celebration of Easter in the springtime, so Pope Gregory decided to modify the calendar and bring Easter back in line into the spring. The calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar, is essentially the calendar we used today.
With the new calendar, several countries decided that it was better to celebrate the New Year on January 1st. But, like many things, there were still those who choose to celebrate the New Year on April 1st. Those who clung to the old celebration were called “April Fools” and sent fake party invitations and funny gifts by those who used the newer calendar.
Now, to make matters even more confusing, the Jewish civil calendar starts in what is the seventh month of their calendar, our month of September, with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. That celebration will be next Friday. And with the celebration, Jews around the world will begin the year 5761. And for the Chinese and the Muslims, their calendar year is an entirely different one. Each culture has its own calendar with its own set of references.
The same is true for our own calendar, which is supposed to begin with the birth of Christ. Yet that reference date is probably off by at least 4 years and instead of it being 1999, it is more likely the year 2003 since the birth of Christ and we missed the change in the millennium.
You know, come to think of it, maybe the Y2K problem isn’t such a bad idea after all. We could just wait for the clocks to roll over to double zero and start all over again.
Starting over is what Paul wrote to the Romans about.
And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
While for many, the Second Coming of Christ was an actual occurrence in the time line of history, early Christians, such as the Romans to whom Paul was writing, did not. Christ Himself told his disciples that the hour and day of His coming was unknown but that we should prepare for it. Rather, they regarded the death and resurrection as crucial events in history that would begin the last days. Since the next great even in God’s redemptive plan would be the Second Coming, “the night”, as Paul writes and no matter how long chronologically it might be, was “nearly over.
To get tied up with the day, the month, and year of a particular calendar takes away the meaning and the reason for preparation. For what happens if we miss the day? It is clearly folly to think that we can ignore the signs. The penalty is obvious.
Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech.
“How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery and fools hate knowledge?
If you had responded to my rebuke, I would have poured out my heart to you and made my thoughts known to you.
But since you rejected me when I called and no one gave heed when I stretched out my hand,
Since you ignored all my advice and would not accept my rebuke,
I in turn will laugh at your disaster; I will mock when calamity overtakes you —
When calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you.
Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me.
Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord,
Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke,
They will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
But whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm. (Proverbs 1: 20 – 33)
In the rest of the OT reading for today, Moses and Aaron are given the instructions on how to prepare the Passover feast. This was so that the people would always remember what it was like before the exodus from Egypt and traveled to the Promised Land. And this celebration would mark the beginning of the calendar year and a way to remember what God had done for them. The designation of this month as Israel’s religious New Year reminded Israel that her life as the people of God was grounded in God’s redemptive act in the exodus.
Paul’s exhortation to the Romans that they clothe themselves in Christ is his way of telling us that our preparation includes living a life like Christ would.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Paul gives the rules of living, just as Christ also gave them. Paul wrote
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.
In Luke 6: 27 – 37, Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemies, of turning the other check.
“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is it to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect payment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
The behavior that Paul encourages the Romans to follow is much like that which Jesus encouraged his followers and disciples to follow as well. Settle the disputes with the love of Christ in your hearts, not with malice or hatred. Jesus made the special point of noting that whatever one does on earth will come back to them in heaven.
But where will this love come from? Will simply following a set of rules and laws offer the guarantee that you will be prepared? You can follow all the rules, as Paul says that you should.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covert,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
But will following the laws be sufficient? This was the very problem that John Wesley some two hundred and fifty years ago.
When I met Peter Böhler again, he consented to put the dispute upon the issue which I desired, namely, Scripture and experience. I first consulted the Scripture. But when I set aside the glosses of men, and simply considered the words of God, comparing them together, endeavouring to illustrate the obscure by the plainer passages; I found they all made against me, and was forced to retreat to my last hold, “that experience would never agree with the literal interpretation of those scriptures. Nor could I therefore allow it to be true, till I found some living witnesses of it.” He replied, he could show me such at any time; if I desired it, the next day. And accordingly, the next day he came again with three others, all of whom testified, of their own personal experience, that a true living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon from all past, and freedom from all present, sins. They added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God; and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it. I was now thoroughly convinced; and, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end, 1. By absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works or righteousness; on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up. 2. By adding to the consent use of all the other means of grace, continual prayer for this very thing, justifying, saving faith, a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for me; a trust in him, as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification, and redemption. (John Wesley)
As Wesley points out, we have been given a gift, the gift of God’s Grace. It was that sudden realization that God’s grace will set us free that allowed John Newton to turn his life around. When you hear the words of the wonderful song “Amazing Grace”, understand that the writer of the song, John Newton, was a slave-ship owner who came to the realization that his life was headed to ruin unless he did something about it.
Jesus told his disciples and followers in the passage from Matthew that we need to see life in a new way. But no matter how fearful we might be of leading such a life, we can always know that He will be there with us.
The Passover feast was to be the beginning of a new start for the Israeli people. As mention in Hebrews and the first letter of John (Hebrews 9: 22; 1 John 1: 7), the lamb served as this celebration was later represented as the Lamb of God through Jesus Christ and Jesus’ represents a new start for us.
The song that I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon talks about knowing what time it is. And to paraphrase that song, we do not need to know what time it is. What we do need to know is that Christ died for our sins and in that act of love, gave us the opportunity for a new start. Do we wait or do we take that opportunity?