This is the message I presented at Modena Memorial UMC on Reformation Sunday, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 31, 1999. I exchanged pulpits that Sunday as their pastor was at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.
When I first read the Scriptures for today, I could not help but think of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In that movie, the first of the Indiana Jones movies, Indiana Jones takes on the task of finding the lost Ark of the Covenant and in the process fighting the Nazis for its possession. The Nazis wanted the Ark because they saw its usefulness as a weapon of war that would bring them victory. Now, there may be some truth to that because whenever the Israelite army went into battle with the Ark in front of them, they seldom lost the battle.
But it was not with the Ark used as a death ray as suggested in the movie. Rather, the Ark contained the tablets of stone upon which the Ten Commandments were carved. The Ark was the embodiment of God and when the Israelites followed God, they were an invincible army. It was only when the army failed to believe in God and trusted in the “magic” of the Ark, such as when they fought the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – 6 that they lost the battle and the Ark. However, the Philistines were stricken with such horrible plagues that they quickly returned the Ark to Israel.
In the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites are about to cross the river Jordan into the Promised Land. God tells Joshua to pick twelve priests, one from every tribe of Israel to carry the Ark. When these twelve touch the waters of the river, the river will stop flowing and a path across the river will be made clear so that the nation of Israel can cross over on relatively dry land.
I grew up as a second-generation military brat, the son of an Air Force Major and the grandson of an Army Colonel. If I had been given the opportunity I would have jumped at the chance to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But my vision prevented that.
The primary function of the service academies is to prepare individuals to serve this country as its military leaders. As such, part of the training the cadets and midshipman received is designed so that they will understand that there are men and women who must ultimately carry out the orders that their leaders give.
The college where I did do my undergraduate studies is not far from the birthplace of Omar Bradley. It was said that Bradley was a soldier’s soldier, a general who understood that there were men who must carry out his orders. The soldiers liked General Bradley because he understood them.
And though I use a military analogy, the same is true in private industry. Good leaders in business today understand what they are asking their workers to do. That is the point of the Old Testament reading today; the leaders of Israel were the ones who got their feet wet so that the nation could walk across the river Jordan.
And I think that is part of the exasperation that Jesus must have felt in the Gospel reading for today concerning the leaders of society. They sat in positions of authority, accepting the accolades that went with the position but were not willing to get involved in the heavy work that went with leadership.
And we all now people in business or elsewhere who are like that. They like the trappings of power but make impossible demands on the workers or refuse to give the workers anything that will make the job easier. Companies with this type of structure find themselves quickly in trouble.
In the Epistle reading for today, Paul noted his conduct while he preached the Gospel in Thessalonica. He stated that though he was a messenger of God, that position gave him no special status or power. As the messenger, it is also important to note that he “urged and encouraged” rather than “demanded” that the Thessalonians lead a life of God.
The point expressed by Paul and Jesus in the Gospel reading is simply. If you wish the respect that comes with leadership, you must earn it; it does not simply come with the position. And my friends, this does not apply to just a select few among us who are the designated leaders. It applies to each and every one of us.
The challenges we face in today’s society are seemingly insurmountable. The divisions between us because of race, social status, or economic status will not go away because of who our leaders are now or who want to be our leaders. They will go away when we, as individuals guided by Christ, do His work. In the last of the Gospel reading for today, Jesus notes that there is only one teacher and one Messiah and we are all His students.
There is no way that we can call persons to Christ if we ignore what is going on in the world around us. John Wesley was not the first preacher to preach against the inequities of society in 18th century England. Other preachers did so as well but Wesley was perhaps the first preacher who called upon his parishioners, the founders of what is now our United Methodist Church, to take action.
Someone once asked me to define the differences between Methodism and other Christian denominations. Since all Christian denominations have in common the belief that by our faith in Christ, we are saved by the grace of God, what is it that makes us Methodists? Quite simply, for Methodists, the question is “Having been saved, what shall you do next?”
We can never be perfect and, even as saved individuals, we will never approach perfection. But that should not stop us from trying to reach perfection, of reaching a better state of grace. And that requires that we do, as John Wesley stated, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the time you can, to all the people you can and as long as you can.” (John Wesley quoted in the The 365-Day Devotional Commentary, p. 671)
Jesus pointed out in Matthew 23: 11 “The greatest among you will become servants” and in verse 12, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we are to be good leaders, we must first be good servants.
Our lives as Christians must be more than hearing the Gospel preached on Sunday. Auguste Sabetier wrote
Merely to reproduce his words is not to continue his work’ we must reproduce his life, passion and death. He desires to live again in each one of his disciples in order that he may continue to suffer, to bestow himself, and to labor in and through them towards the redemption of humanity, until all prodigal and lost children be found and brought back to their Father’s house. Thus it is that, instead of being removed far from human history, the life and death of Christ one more take their place in history, setting forth the law that governs it, and, by ceaselessly increasing the power of redemptive sacrifice, transform and govern it, and direct it towards its divine end. (From “The Atonement” by Auguste Sabetier as quoted in The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)
If we are to be Christ’s disciples in this world, we must continue His work. Sometimes it feels like a hopeless cause and we desperately wish to have the Ark of the Covenant preceding us in battle, as it did for the Israelites as they took over the Promised Land. But no one knows where the Ark of the Covenant is today. At the conclusion of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we see a government working putting the crate holding the Ark away in some obscure government warehouse. There is a legend among some Middle East Christian sects that the Ark is in a church somewhere in Ethiopia. But there is no sure way to determine if that is true or not.
Paul wrote the Thessalonians,
When you received the word of God, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in what you believe.
By our faith and acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, God’s word takes on a newer meaning. The word of God is embodied in Christ and when we accepted him, it is as if the Word of God precedes us each day.
We stand on the banks of the river Jordan, looking across at the Promised Land. But to get there, we have to get our feet wet. We have to accept Christ as our Savior and we have to then let His presence in our lives show us the way that we must go. We cannot sit back and let others do it for us. The invitation to you today is that simple, shall you get your feet wet?